Phil Brett

Phil Brett

Phil Brett is a primary school teacher who has written a future fiction/crime novel, Comrades Come Rally, and is at this moment writing a sequel. He lives in London.

The world was theirs to win: revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy
Sunday, 19 February 2017 22:23

The world was theirs to win: revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett enjoys the art at the RA exhibition, but not the simplistic and misleading commentary.

Remember the fuss over the art of Hans Holbein the Younger because he painted during the time of an autocratic ruler who had a fondness for decapitating his wives? No, of course not, there wasn’t any. But there have been such murmurings about the Royal Academy’s exhibition on the art of the 1917 Russian Revolution, in The Guardian amongst other places. With liberals tut-tutting, I was intrigued as to what the Royal Academy itself would make of it.

RA Tyshler Formal Construction of Red

Tyshler: Formal Construction of Red

The Russian Revolution was a moment in history when working people seized power in attempt to end oppression and exploitation. In doing so, a wealth of artistic creativity - visual, ceramic, musical and cinematic - was unleashed. The RA has included a lot of it here: there are masterpieces from amongst others, Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall, as well as films from Eisenstein and designs for workers’ homes in the exhibition. It shows the breadth of the art produced, whether it is the abstractions of Alexander Tyshel or the more figurative paintings of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin or art designed for everyday use.

RA Pedrov Vodkin Self portrait

Pedrov-Vodkin: Self-portrait

At the heart of the exhibition are two rooms, ‘Brave New World’ being the first, which vibrate with energy, with artists such as Lyubov Popova, whose Space-Force Construction (1921), swirls like a cyclone around the centre and almost appears to escape the canvas and whirl you around. It is a piece which you can stand in front of and lose yourself. It is stunning. Similarly, Wassily Kandinsky’s Blue Crest (detail) (1917) takes your breath away. Energy combines with freedom to involve you emotionally. For me, I look at it and my brain tries to identify literal images, are there buildings, figures or faces? But as I look, I’m drawn in and simply enjoy the spectacle.

RA Woman with a rake

Malevich: Woman with a Rake

This and the next room, devoted to Kazimir Malevich, are a reflection of the revolution at its high point. The air is one of optimism and euphoria. The world was theirs to win. Previous to the revolution Malevich had been experimenting with geometric shapes, the revolution gave him fresh impetus. Even later his shift to figurative based painting, such as Woman with a Rake (1932) has shape at its heart. She looks like a jigsaw, an essential part of the world which she lives in. Likewise, Torso (Prototype of a New Image) (1929-32) isn’t in the tradition of figural representation, it is an attempt to create a new one. A direction he took further with his peasants’ series of paintings.

Marc Chagall was for a time Commissar for the arts in Vitebsk and has two fantastic paintings here. The largest is Prominade (1917-1918) which is a huge canvas with the artist holding hands with his wife Bella, who is floating in the air. Ostensibly about their love but it also captures the freedom that the revolution promised.

There is no doubt that the art exhibited is absolutely fantastic, you can’t help but wonder at the amazing imagination on show. The problem lies in the commentary which accompanies it.

RA Popova Space Time Construction

Popova: Space-Force Construction

In the first room you are not introduced to the autocratic horror or Tsarism, or the hopes of the revolutionary masses but to the theme of ‘Salute the Leader’ where we are told, the “icons of Lenin replaced those of Christ”.

Rooms follow called ‘Man and Machine’ and the aforementioned, ‘Brave New World’, repeating the clichéd narrative arc of the dictator Lenin leading inevitably to the dictator Stalin, with his gulags. The historical context given is not much deeper than that. There is only passing mention of the massive, devastating, Civil War, let alone the invading western armies, which are never mentioned!

The exhibition blames the famine and poverty of those years on the Bolsheviks, not the attempts of the ruling classes of France and Britain to destabilise the fledgling workers’ state. We are told in ‘The Fate of the Peasants’ room that the peasants were “robbed of individuality” by the Bolsheviks. Presumably, the curators believe that the life of the peasant in Tsarist Russia was one of idyllic charm: writing poetry, whilst painting the fine countryside which they were of course not forced to work on, ploughing the fields just for the utter joy of it.

wassily kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky 

This narrative does have a problem though of trying to explain why so many artists, many of whom are now seen as giants of the arts, were drawn to the revolution, producing works of brilliance. Especially as we are repeatedly told that Lenin was not that interested in art and that at best, art was “tolerated” by the Bolsheviks.

This is nonsense, as Christine Lindey in Art and the Bolshevik Revolution writes on this site. Anatoliy Lunacharsky for example, was a poet and an art critic and became the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, responsible for education and culture. Leon Trotsky, leader of the Red Army, was so interested in art that not only did he write about it extensively but included artists on the civil war trains. (Which is perhaps why he barely gets a mention, except for appearing on a rather fine cup by Mikhail Adamovich).

Trotsky’s view that “art must make its own way and by its own means” is ignored because it does not fit the view that the Bolsheviks considered art as being purely for propaganda – so Martin Sixsmith tells us on the audio tape. Yes, the very Martin Sixsmith who was Tony Blair’s Director of Communication and who suggested ‘burying bad news’ on September 11th. I wasn’t sure whether the RA was enjoying some ironic humour here. I’m guessing not. The whole tone of the commentary throughout the exhibition programme is simplistic, misleading or simply wrong, viewing the artists as being at best skilled but naive dreamers who eventually see the error of their ways.

The exhibition ends with images of some of the many who died in the purges. The only explanation offered here for their deaths is that it was destined to be like that. Revealingly, there was no equivalent in the first room concerning the slaughter of the First World War, or of the Tsarist pogroms. As a socialist from the Trotskyist tradition, I believe that the Russian Revolution was attacked, isolated, subverted and besieged by Western capitalist powers, with the finest cadre killed in the Civil War, which led to a counter-revolution.

Now, I did not particularly expect that view to be expressed here, but I think it is fair enough to have expected some well-informed commentary and debate, as to what drew so many artists to the cause and what made many grow disillusioned. There should be a more fair-minded presentation of the different accounts of what happened to alter the trajectory of the revolution – and if the RA want to raise the gulags, then the reasons for their appearance should be presented. I was prepared to cut the Royal Academy some slack and not expect a detailed discussion of the workers’ revolution from a socialist perspective – it is after all, the Royal Academy, a bastion of the art establishment - but I did expect a somewhat more sophisticated take on what inspired so many great artists, than the banal line promoted here.


Kazimir Malevich

The sheer exuberance and optimism of people fighting for a new world can be clearly be seen in the art on display, but is ignored by the gallery. Also ignored is the interesting questions of the place of art in a society in crisis, its duty – or otherwise – to play a role in it and how the avant-garde can connect with the masses. Questions which could have easily fallen into the remit of the RA, without the need for the curators to be card-carrying Marxists.

So with all those reservations, is it worth a trip? Yes, the art is magnificent – rich in ideas, vibrancy and beauty. I would give the audio commentary a miss and ignore the curatorship of the exhibition. The art stands out as a beacon of hope, with rooms alive with young artists, giddy with the freedom that October 1917 created. That it was created in a cauldron of revolution is a fact that the RA cannot understand. Like many liberal critics, it can see the greatness of the art but not the politics behind it. In the final room, we are told that Stalin took great interest in literature and art, because it was an area where he could not suppress the ideas contained within. Whatever the Royal Academy might think or attempt, they cannot either.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 is on the at the Royal Academy until 17th April

Wednesday, 05 October 2016 14:39

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels at the V and A

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett finds an intoxicatingly high level of class struggle in the latest V and A exhibition.

Rock music is ageing and whilst not dead, does appear to be becoming a museum piece with a growing a number of major exhibitions of rock musicians and bands. Elvis, The Stones and Pink Floyd have all recently got the treatment. The Victoria and Albert Museum effectively kicked off the trend with their David Bowie Is exhibition back in 2013. Rock has clearly moved on from ‘hope I die before I get old’ to ‘do I get a discount on museum entry?’ And so in another glorious incongruity, the latest theme is on the relationship of rebellion and music, in the grand setting of the V & A.

V and A count me out

Curated by many of the same team who did the Bowie exhibition, it is similar in set-up. Given head-phones, you move through the rooms with appropriate music providing the aural soundscape. So I walked up the corridor and into the first room with The Who’s Magic Bus in my ears. The exhibition sets out to show how society fundamentally changed in the years 1966 to 1970. It is ambitious in scope, with rooms covering music, politics, fashion, technology, culture and travel. This ambition means that there is much to enjoy. The displays are, as you would expect at the V&A, lovingly set out. You can, amongst other things, marvel at the Sgt. Pepper’s costumes, gaze up at the huge screens showing Hendrix at Woodstock and wonder at how Jagger managed to squeeze into that jumpsuit.

V and A sgt pepper

At the heart of the exhibition is a great room featuring the struggles of the time: Paris, May 1968, the Black Panthers, the LGBT struggle, women’s rights and the anti-Vietnam demos. This genuinely feels powerful and links well with the music of rebellion. Being someone who has lived his adult years experiencing retreats, defeats, and only partial victories, this high level of class struggle is intoxicating in its inspiration.

The exhibition’s ambition though is also a weakness, with some rooms, such as the travel, I felt only awkwardly fitted the theme. Personally, I would have narrowed the focus, so allowing more space for the link of music and rebellion. Because the scope is so wide, things get lost; I did feel that soul and funk were under-represented here, and, surprisingly, Bob Dylan.


The strengths outweigh the weaknesses though. I especially liked how it ends. It easy to feel nostalgia and sentimentalism for rebellion gone by, and then when it comes to the present these same people can lose their enthusiasm. Look at how The Guardian loved this exhibition, whilst regularly attempting to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. To its credit, this exhibition closes with a look at how much the rebellion achieved and the effect it had on our world. But it also has a montage of footage of contemporary campaigns, such as Black Lives Matter. And a question hangs in the air, have we replaced the ‘we’ with the ‘me’?

Of course it is up to us, when we leave this exhibition, to help build the ‘we’ into fighting back; to music and rebellion is alive, they ain’t no mere museum pieces. You say you wanna a revolution – yeah, we do.



You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum till 26 February 2017.

'If we stop fighting, the world will die': a review of Casablanca
Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:14

'If we stop fighting, the world will die': a review of Casablanca

Published in Films

Phil Brett draws some lessons for today's refugee crisis from Casablanca.

Casablanca often features in lists of favourite films, and often receives highbrow scoffing. The novelist and critic Umberto Eco, for example, says of the movie, 'To make a good story, a single archetype is usually good enough. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that. It uses them all.' I want to make the case that Casablanca is not only a good film but one with a strong political element to it which socialists can relate to.

Most people will be aware of the plot. It is December 1941, American Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) runs a nightclub/gambling den in Casablanca, a city controlled by Vichy France, with the head of police being the corrupt Louis Renault (Claude Rains). The clientele is a mixture of Vichy French, locals, Nazis and people desperate to flee war-torn Europe and get to then still-neutral America. Three people arrive to disrupt Blaine’s apparent apathetic life: Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), a Czech resistance leader, his wife, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and a man who intends to stop these two fleeing - a German major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). Whether Lazlo will be able to escape is a central part of the narrative arc, along with the complication that Lund had previously (in pre-invasion Paris) a relationship with Blaine - which man will she choose?

So why is Casablanca so good? Well, the cast is sublime, aprt from the above-named there are actors such as Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Many of the performances are excellent: Bogart’s nonchalance, Lorre’s slimy petty criminality and Claude Rains amoralism (which steals virtually every scene). The film also drips with classic lines which are among the most quoted (and misquoted) in cinema history.

But I think it resonates with people on other levels too. It's an anti-Nazi film, and one which has the question of refugees at its heart. The opening credits feature a map of the world and a narrator talking about 'imprisoned Europe'. Images of lines of refugees appear the narrator describing the 'tortured roundabout refugee trail', with people anxiously crossing the Mediterranean to safety. The images then would have touched a chord. They do now, the direction it is the opposite, but the desperation of refugees to flee war is the same.




 Later, Greenstreet’s character, when discussing Sam, the café’s piano player, echoes the major theme, telling Rick that people are the key commodity in Casablanca.

This was no accident. The script was adapted from the play Everybody comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, who had written it after a visit in 1938 to Vienna, where he had been appalled by what he had seen of the treatment of Jews. The twins Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch, politicised it further. The Epsteins were Jewish liberals and Howard Koch was a radical who became a victim of the McCarthy 1950s witch-hunts. One example of their alterations, which is symptomatic of the layering of the theme, is the change of the customer who Rick bars from the gambling room. In the play it was an English cad, in the film, a representative of the Deutsche Bank.


Yes, it was made by Hollywood through the studio system, but as Mike Quille writes about The Third Man and Peter Frost about the more overtly political Spartacus, it has always been possible to create interesting movies within the mainstream. Casablanca is a melodrama, and there is much which can be ridiculed: the fact that Laszlo is a refugee on the run, but still sports a wardrobe of sharply pressed linen suits, and after his time in a concentration camp has only a dashing scar on his forehead. However, there is a certain realism to it. The famous scene where the bar stands up and drowns out Germans singing by a rendition of an emotional La Marseillaise, shows the extras crying with the passion of the fight against the Nazis. Many were not acting, because virtually the entire cast were real refugees, including the actor playing the German major, Conrad Veidt, who had fled Berlin because of his anti-Nazi activities. Another German officer in the bar is played by Hans Twardowski, who had fled the Nazis because he was gay. Director Curtiz lost family, murdered in Auschwitz. Many had leftist leaning - Lorre for example was a friend and colleague of Bertolt Brecht. And the list goes on.

If the realism of a film is defined as characters behaving logically within their world, then for the most part, they do. Eco believed the film was a “hotch-potch” of scenes, a result of the well-known story that the three writers were unsure of the ending. It is true, Ingrid Bergman found her role difficult because the uncertainty of who her character would end up with, right up to the filming of it. But I think that adds to the realism of her performance. I think it has a strong unified theme: for example, there is a young couple attempting to flee, and their story runs in parallel to the main story, often pre-empting it. Viewers thus see that this is a story not just of one couple fleeing for their lives, but of many.

As expected in such a film, (it is after all, Hollywood) it does focus on individuals but there is a strong supporting cast of characters with their own stories. The opening scene shows a street (with, for the time, a large number for black actors) bristling with people. The message is clear – the threat of Nazism is world-wide, it is a danger to the collective whole. When Major Strasser says that the Germans will have to acclimatise to varied types of climates – from the arctic to the desert, modern audiences will see it as the Nazis being dastardly. Audiences in 1943 would see it as still quite a distinct possibility.

Written in a period of defeats, (it officially entered the studio system the day after Pearl Harbour), it was early enough to avoid the Bureau of Motion Pictures, America’s heavy hand of censorship and propaganda. The Bureau was too new to enforce its dislike of the use of the La Marseillaise and the criticism of Vichy (who, at the time, the States were cosying up to) within the film. Rick represents the USA, stirring out of its isolation. The audience though is told early on that whilst he is a cynic, he has historically been on the right side - fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and supplying guns to the anti-fascist side in Ethiopia (acts which in real life a few years later would have got him into trouble with Senator McCarthy). But it isn’t just Rick who is the United States, but the café itself. Curtiz makes the café America in microcosm. The music playing, not only the iconic As Time Goes By, is American, playing as a backdrop to a multinational clientele. This is classic American self-mythologizing. But whether intentionally or not, it isn’t all heroic. The roulette wheel represents the dependence on chance which the refugees rely on, but it can also equally act unwittingly as a metaphor for the capitalist system. Supposedly with luck and skill, people can ‘get on’ and ‘win’, but ultimately, the game is rigged.


And whatever the impression which Ricks likes to give, and read that as of America, not everybody is equal. Pianist Sam (played by actor and singer Dooley Wilson) may be portrayed fairly sympathetically for a black character in a nineteen forties movie, but he is still made to be subservient to Rick. At one point Ilsa refers to him as a ‘boy’. Sexual conservatism is also present, with Hollywood rules only allowing the backstory of Rick and Ilsa because she thought Laszlo was dead.

This is not a Marxist film then, but I believe that one of the most important lines is not one of the most celebrated, it is not witty or amusing but it is at the heart of the film. It is spoken by Laszlo, an earnest, sincere and brave character (if somewhat boring): 'If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die'. The enemies here are Nazis, espousing a murderous racial superiority which not only threatens the world but forces it to look to its conscience to decide what its reaction will be.

Umberto Eco says audiences feel a sense of déjà vu when viewing Casablanca. These days, with the far right growing in popularity on the back of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia, maybe there will be a sense of déjà vu. Watching a time when Europeans were seeking sanctuary in a Muslim country should make people think. Today, there are millions of refugees desperate for safety. They are not fleeing Nazism, but they are fleeing a war, and being met with states closing borders and denying transit. In Casablanca, countries and people have to decide on what action to take: the same is true now. In the film, the choice made is solidarity - that is the 'beautiful friendship. Ilsa and Lazlo get the transit they need; so should today’s refugees.
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 14:00

'Increasingly more political': the art of Cornelia Parker

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett introduces the art of Cornelia Parker.            

I was only vaguely familiar with the artist Cornelia Parker, when in 1998, Steve, a good friend of mine, suggested that we visit the London Serpentine Gallery for an exhibition of hers. At the time, I wasn’t in a good emotional place, so I might have expected a pub rather than a gallery, but nonetheless I agreed. It was a good choice. What I saw entranced me. I sat on the floor, staring in wonder at Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989). The silver plated cutlery had been flattened by a steam roller and hung by wires. They shimmered in the light, floating mid-air, casting shadows on the wooden floor, with the elegance of an Alexander Calder mobile.

My unfamiliarity to Cornelia Parker was due to my lack of knowledge, rather than any obscurity on her part. Rising alongside, but not essentially a part of, the wave of Young British Artists, such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, who gained prominence from the late 1980s, Parker has become a major contemporary British artist. She has benefitted from the explosion in the global art market (which in 2015 was estimated to be worth £63.8 billion). This year, has seen the publication of a monograph (Thames & Hudson) on her, a major installation at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a documentary by the BBC arts programme Imagine and her curatorship of an exhibition at the London Foundling Museum. Her work includes installations, paintings, drawings, photographs, even embroidery.

That she is not as well-known as either Emin or Hirst is perhaps due to the fact that generally she has avoided the jeering of the tabloid media in their self-appointed role of guardians of ‘what is art?’ Not that she has escaped completely. Whilst the new may not shock very often, it can provoke sneering. This, they did to The Maybe (1995) which had actress Tilda Swindon sleeping in a glass box.  Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described common sense as being the ideas of the ruling class; the tabloid media have appointed themselves as defenders of the ‘common sense’ view of what is art. She also received a dismissive reaction from such quarters with her 2003 piece The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). This was Rodin’s The Kiss, wrapped in string. The concept was to show the “claustrophobia of relationships”, how they can bind and protect, but also constrain and restrain. Such thoughts weren’t accepted by some, with a group of art students cutting off the string. It insulted great art, they said. Missing the irony that Rodin himself had been so accused in his time.

PB distance

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached). (2003)

Freedom is a theme found often in her work. Generally, she is not regarded as a ‘political artist’ as Mona Hatoum or Jeremy Deller might be. Parker herself has said that she is merely, “a human being trying to negotiate the laws of the land” but that said, she also believes that “being an artist is a political act”.

Looking at how one aspect of her work has evolved is instructive. She is perhaps best known for Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) where she got the British Army to blow up a shed full of household objects and then hung them around a lightbulb. The effect of the hanging broken domesticity and their shadows is stunning; questioning the familiar and making them cryptic. Looking at it makes me feel like I am prying into someone’s private world. The art being suspended, allows the viewer more freedom to observe it, from a variety angles; more than you could a painting, where generally, the onlooker is prepositioned.  With this you can circle it. Again, one gets the sense of snooping. This is one of my favourite pieces of art – I find it to be at once, static but also changing, every-day but mysterious. But to be honest, I find it difficult to explain clearly why I like it so much. Perhaps that is because as Marxist art critic, John Berger, wrote, “All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.”

PB cold dark matter

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

In 2004 and Parker used in a similar way, the remains of a church which had been burnt down in a forest fire. Both its title (Heart of Darkness) and its composition, she said, was a deliberate metaphor for the right-wing politics of the USA.

PB next one after cold dark matter

Heart of Darkness (2004)

A year later and she developed the theme in Anti-Mass (2005), with a church, this time not burnt down by nature, but a black congregational church which had been fire-bombed by racist bikers. Assembled as a cube it looks like an abstract painting, yet it stands as a very concrete and physical condemnation of racist violence.

PB Anti mass

Anti-Mass (2005)

Who Parker works with is interesting. Marx wrote that when Milton was writing Paradise Lost he was an unproductive worker; he was just like a silk worm producing silk, but when he had sold it he had become a dealer in a commodity. The position of some of today’s artists (Hirst for example) is further complicated by the fact they employ teams of people to create their art. They are employers.  Art as a money-making commodity can at the very least be a strong counter pole of attraction to producing silk for the sake of it.

Parker does employ others to aid her in her art but they are an important part of their meaning. She chose the British Army to blow up the shed as a challenge to her view of authority, in her words, a touch of “sleeping with the enemy”, and simultaneously questioning who an artist should work with. I also think it is a clever choice – because in modern wars armies don’t just blow up military targets, but civilian ones. The shed represents people’s homes, their lives, their memories.

To celebrate 800 years of the Magna Carta, The British Library asked Parker to create a piece of art. She decided to embroider a Wikipedia entry on the document. She did some of Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015) herself but she also chose 200 other people to help her for different bits. Again, she chose carefully, as well as thirty three prisoners, individuals were asked to embroider particular words, such as Julian Assange (freedom), Doreen Lawrence (justice) and Edward Snowden (liberty) – feeling that by doing it, these people physically creating these words, the art was given more power.

PB wiki embroidery

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) (2015)

In the Imagine, programme she told presenter Alan Yentob that she feels that she is, “increasingly more political as I get older”. This is obvious with Magna Carta (An Embroidery) but also War Room (2015) which she created in the Manchester Whitworth Gallery; a chapel-like room is made out of the red sheets which rememberence poppies are made from. One enters it in a hush, looking at the mass of red, but with the empty holes somehow capturing the lost lives of a futile war.

PB Below are links

War Room (2015)

Possibly, her most explicitly political piece is a video instalation, Chomskian Abstract (2007). This is an interview by Cornelia Parker of Noam Chomsky, the Marxist historian, social critic and activist. Her voice is edited out so you only hear the answers, thus the viewer is free to insert their own questions, as Chomsky silently listens, before you hear his articulate answers. The topics range from power, the environment, foreign policy and capitalism. She was intrgued by Chomsky because of his “clarity, cutting through the McCarthyist fug of Bush’s America”.

The links to the three-part interview are as follows:

The art of Cornelia Parker always interests and often moves me. For me, she fits how John Berger finishes the earlier quote, “Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.”
Lesley Woods, lead singer for the Au Pairs
Friday, 27 May 2016 11:05

No-one's little girl: gender and guitars in post-punk pop music

Published in Music

Phil Brett riffs on the political meanings of some great post-punk pop groups.

Forty years ago punk exploded into the national conscience, with bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Jam developing a huge following. Much as I love these bands, I want to focus on what followed from that burst of energy, the music which is now called post-punk. Inspired by punk, it was originally lumped in with it, but it was music which drew in a range of influences such as electronic music, reggae, funk, Bowie and jazz. By 1978, musicians wanted to move away from what Andy Gill of the Gang of Four describes as punk, being “slightly faster, slightly worse played heavy metal”. New wave was a term which was also sometimes used, but that conjured up rather insipid radio-friendly versions of punk by session musicians wearing skinny black ties.

Post-punk was I believe, a period of sublime creativity which had the questioning of music and indeed of society at its heart (and often its mind). Much of the mainstream music press has either ignored or downplayed its political aspect. That is a mistake, because not only did the music sometimes contain some pretty unambiguous political views (examples of which will follow), but even when it didn’t, it was indirectly political, similar to the point which Nick Grant makes in his article on Snarky Puppy.

Too often, music history merely looks at individuals as if they live in a social vacuum. In this case pages have been spent debating who was the most important - John Lydon or Malcolm McLaren. Yet, for me that is a secondary issue. More interesting is why, when the biggest audience the Pistols ever played to (as headliners) was 100 people, did they have such an effect? So many people who saw them were inspired to form bands, including some famous names, that in some ways it would be easier to compile a list of individuals who did not form one.

The answer lies in the fact that there was a receptive audience to what the Pistols offered. Late seventies Britain had seen the decline in the militancy of trade unions. Movements such as feminism and anti-racism had made gains but had stalled. The Labour Government of Callaghan had brought in policies which Thatcher gleefully took up. The National Front (NF) was leeching on people’s dissatisfaction and growing in size. Grey Britain was matched by grey plodding rock music. Here then was a milieu which contained elements that would embrace punk and nurture post-punk. A squatting movement had grown up, taking over the empty houses which lay derelict. The hippy 1960s idealism and sense of rebellion lingered, maybe not in its former strident terms, but it was still there. A pub-rock circuit had emerged, desperately trying to provide an alternative to the excesses of Yes et al.

Recently, in a reaction against punk’s emphasis on ‘street cred’, much has been made of the involvement of art school students in punk and post-punk, downplaying the working class. Leaving aside the interesting point as to why punk felt the need to pledge allegiance to ‘the street’, I believe this class denial stems from a snobbish belief that the working class cannot innovate artistically and needs the middle class to do so. The recent obituaries of George Martin, which tried to paint the son of a carpenter and cleaner as some toff who brought culture to four scruffs from Liverpool, and the Lydon/McLaren debate, are examples of this.

But many of the musicians involved in punk and post-punk were working class. Many who listened to it, including myself, were working class. It should be added that art schools at that time allowed access for some of the working class to express creativity, something which present government polices of pricing higher education out of even the lower middle class reach is destroying. Disaffected working class and art school youth wanted something different: the Pistols came along and suggested something.

Punk spat in the face of bourgeois respectability. Why, even the punk dance, the pogo, didn’t have any moves! Just up and down. It was chaos against order. Things moved quickly though. Central to punk’s ethos were two things: the primary one was, to steal a quote from Miles Davis, “Do not fear mistakes – there are none”. This encouraged everyone to form a band, including people who have historically have been excluded from rock – women. The second was the attitude of “questioning everything, challenging everything” (Mark Stewart. The Pop Group). For me, those music critics who like to deny political influence in anything which doesn’t include Marxist theory (which actually, The Pop Group and Gang of Four did try to do in their time!) miss the fun and power of the music. Post-punk, even when singing about map references or love, was made in a spirit of do-it-yourself, of greater inclusiveness and the challenging of the established order, often on independent labels who were fiercely anti-corporate. Not political?

Within the post-punk pot there were people who had explicit links with political organisations, for example, Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) and the parents of Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire) were Communist Party members. The Redskins were members of the Socialist Workers Party, and Phil Oakley (Human League) has said that the Sheffield post-punk scene were all ‘Old Labour’. However, like the majority of the population, most did not belong to specific groups, but instead were people who were dissatisfied with late seventies Britain. They may not have had a clear worked-out world view but they had a view that the world was not working out.

This atmosphere of questioning of the norm opened space for creativity. Punk had kicked the door open and post-punk ran in. Siouxsie Sioux has said, “The punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse.” To which should be added the powerful effect of such participation had on women listening to and seeing women make music. The currently much used (and misused) term of empowerment can correctly be applied here. How could it not be, when Poly Styrene opens X Ray Spex’s debut single with, “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I think, Oh bondage up yours!”

Poly Styrene: Love Music Hate Racism

However, one should not exaggerate the involvement of women; it remained a male dominated arena although the number of female musicians, whilst still a minority, grew in these years. Those who were involved had to battle the contradictions of the ‘scene’ because whilst all in it felt duty-bound to denounce the conservatism of the music business, many still echoed it, with female musicians facing sexism from other bands, music journalists and television. Also, despite the importance of funk and reggae to it, post-punk was also overwhelmingly white.

Simply by their gender, female musicians challenged the status quo, but it is important not to think that just because bands such as Penetration, Delta 5, Girls at our Best, The Slits, The Raincoats and Essential Logic had female musicians that they were similar in style or attitude. I asked Viv Albertine (guitarist of The Slits) at a book launch for her biography whether there was a feeling of kinship between them and bands such as The Raincoats. Her answer was that they treated them like any band, either dismissing them or seeing them as rivals. She added that only now does she see such a connection. On reflection, it was probably a dumb question, probably due to being star- struck (the Slits being one of my favourite bands). I mean, do male musicians necessarily feel a brotherhood with each other?

But to see it all as purely mere individual rebellion is too simplistic. Many were drawn to collective action, most notably Rock against Racism (RAR), the sister organisation of the Anti-Nazi League. RAR organised scores of gigs across the country against the threat of the NF, with the largest in Victoria Park in 1978. The headline act was The Clash, but frankly X Ray Spex blew them off the stage. I admit to feeling joy at seeing her again at the 2008 anniversary festival at the park, and feeling satisfaction that Poly Styrene was as strong and charismatic as she had been all those years before. (There were other examples of direct links with campaigns, such as The Pistols playing a benefit for striking fireman at the Christmas of 1977 and The Slits, Au Pairs and Pop Group playing the 1980 Beat the Blues festival at Alexandra Palace, north London).

The Slits: Typical Girls 

The Slits probably should be labelled punk, as they were there in the beginning. However, such a label can be misleading. They had always wanted to avoid what they saw as male guitar rock, with Albertine developing a scratchy style which nodded toward funk and reggae, but which created a new and wonderful sound. Ari Up’s whooping singing with its German-accented English mixed with Jamaican patois bounced around Albertine’s guitar, Tessa Pollitt’s bass and Palmolive’s drums. Produced by reggae musician Dennis Bovell, their debut album Cut (1979), stands as a stunning classic, quite unlike the standard riffs which rock recycles. It is fresh, even after forty years. Their songs, like X Ray Spex’s, were a mixture of anti-consumerism and anti-gender stereotyping. Their best known song, the great Typical Girls, is about the latter, listing the clichés associated with women (“Typical girls worry about spots, fat/and natural smells, stinky fake smells”). The song Newtown addresses the young taking drugs to relieve the boredom, including “televisena” and “footballina”.

The Slits moved further into dub and elements of jazz. Free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry joined them, at their personal expense, on one of their last tours alongside reggae ‘toaster’ Prince Hammer with the band deciding to alternate top billing between the three. An apt illustration of their outlook on life: can you imagine Coldplay doing that?

With post-punk wanting to move as far away from the rock canon as possible, the jazz influence grew, with even Miles Davis playing on a Scritti Politti single, Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry for Loverboy). This was especially the case with free jazz. At the final stages of the Slits' life, they were joined by Cherry’s step-daughter (and future 80s pop star) Neneh. She co-founded, with ex-members of The Pop Group, Rip Rig and Panic - itself a name derived from a Roland Kirk album - to a create a glorious and sometimes quite bonkers mix of post-punk, jazz impro and dub, with Don Cherry also appearing on some tracks.

Jazz and post-punk also shared a belief in strong record sleeve design, feeling that it could complement the music within it - see my piece Wearing their Politics on their Sleeves. They inherited this from punk, using artists such as Jamie Reid, who had designed the cover of the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen and whose ideas were imbued with Situationism. No doubt, the art school influence also played a part. The second Raincoats album, Odyshape (1981), features the Kazimir Malevich painting Peasant Woman.


The Raincoats were often tagged as a feminist band, co-founder Gina Birch responds by being rather more nuanced, saying that hers and fellow founder Anna de Silva’s, was of an “intuitive” variety which was challenged and strengthened with the arrival of the more explicitly political Vicky Aspinall. Their 1979 eponymous debut album epitomises the stop-start rhythms of post-punk, which sometimes sounds as if it will come to a halt at any moment.

The Raincoats

The Raincoats, photo: Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81

However, it is far from being a shambles, and is an album of pop which is unafraid of being loose and of leaving spaces. Of the many fine tunes, two stand out – Off-Duty Trip, a scathing recount of then current case of a guardsman let off a rape because it would ‘harm’ his career. The other, is a stunning cover of The Kinks' Lola, who "walked like a woman and talked like a man". Sung by the women in The Raincoats the whole nature of the fluidity and social construct of sexuality and gender are explored brilliantly in a catchy pop song.

 Raincoats playing Lola live, with Viv Albertine on backing vocals.

Odyshape moved away from this sound. Using a range of second-hand instruments the band embraced a variety of musical influences as diverse as English folk, world music and our old friend, free jazz. This album and their most accessible release, Moving (1984), combine in a single song elements from around the world, managing to simultaneously float whilst moving in a definite direction. There can be jazz piano alongside Middle Eastern chants and soulful vocals, all at the same time. It sometimes seems as if time and space has been expanded to allow the tunes to breathe. Personally, I think this album is a neglected pop classic. The opening three songs should have been monster chart hits, including the wonderful, No One’s Little Girl:

I’m no one's little girl, oh no, I'm not                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         I'm not gonna be - cause I don't wanna be                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               I never shall be on your family tree.

It’s political! It’s pop!

The Au Pairs

Another album with a striking cover, with music to match, is Playing with a Different Sex (1981) by the Au Pairs, which has an Eve Arnold photograph of Chinese female militia on manoeuvres in Mongolia. This Birmingham band, formed in 1978, produced edgy yet catchy songs with a scratchy, funky edge to them. Songs included brilliantly sarcastic looks at sexual relationships in We’re so Cool and It’s Obvious, and a great cover of David Bowie’s Repetition, dealing with domestic violence. Other topics include Northern Ireland eg Armagh, with its chorus – “we don’t torture, we’re a civilised nation”. This album has well-crafted songs with passion, humour and politics: polemics which are powerful but accessible. Their lead singer, Lesley Woods, their lead singer, has one of the great rock voices.

 The Au Pairs on The Old Grey Whistle Test: Set Up

Perhaps if The Au Pairs had not been political they would have made it big. Or maybe that was denied because Woods was a woman who did not play in the defined roles which the industry demanded. The excellent lecturer and writer, Helen Reddington, has said:

Arguably, if female bands had developed the sort of innovations in music that The Slits and The Raincoats, for instance, made, they would have become household names.

Certainly, a good many of the female (and male) post-punk musicians dropped out of music for many years, some even permanently. Some suffered from mental health issues, perhaps from the pressure and the energy required to swim against the stream. Then again, these were often people who had never intended a career in music, but just needed to create what they wanted - sometimes just one single - and then to stop. Or it might be that by the 80s the music business was taking control: the indie labels were being swallowed up, the rough edges of post-punk were smoothed into new pop, and the rest was discarded.

So what is the relevance of these bands today? Well, firstly of course, there is the fantastic music which they created. If you are unaware of The Slits, Raincoats, Rip, Rig and Panic or The Au Pairs then I suggest you treat yourself. Any list of great albums should include them.

They changed women’s involvement in rock. Viv Albertine in her autobiography says that she had few, if any, women guitarists to emulate. The musicians here - and there were many others - filled that gap and inspired others like the Riot Grrrls to follow in the nineties. Sexist stereotyping of the music industry still exists, and depressingly appears to be going strong, but there are challenges to it. Bands such as Warpaint and The Savages continue the tradition.

Similarly, any list of great political songs should include them alongside the usual entries of sixties protest anthems. They re-energized politics in music, which would continue throughout the eighties and nineties. And whilst bands who are explicitly political are at present rather thin on the ground, benefit concerts for strikes and campaigns are now the norm.

But let me return to the point made at the beginning of this piece. Music, even if not explicitly political, can with its quest to question, challenge and innovate, affect people who listen and enjoy it. For the most part, I have mentioned music which does address political issues but I believe they were able to do so in an atmosphere where such a thing was not seen as odd or unusual. People are drawn into politics by many routes, often by a combination of factors. Art, including music, can be one of them. That was true for me - an important part of my personal political education was as a fifteen year old listening to The Clash, and then having a whole new joyous world opened up by the music from these bands.


Thanks to Birmingham 81@Birmingham_81 for the use of his photos of Lesley Wood and The Raincoats.

Sunday, 06 March 2016 18:17

Wearing their politics on their sleeves: Civil Rights and the art of the jazz album cover

Published in Music

The cultural struggle takes many forms, says Phil Brett, and shows us the aesthetically beautiful and politically challenging art to be found on the sleeves of albums made by black jazz musicians..

A journalist from the New Yorker, who was writing a piece on Duke Ellington, heard a white New York cop say to the great band leader, “If you’d been a white man, Duke, you’d have been a great musician.” Such racism wouldn’t have surprised Ellington because he, like other black musicians, experienced it daily – the segregated travel, clubs, seating and even the toilets. Arbitrary stops on the road and general harassment would have been the norm. Of course as well-known musicians they would have ‘enjoyed’ small level of protection which black non-musicians would not have. For them, assault and murder would have been far from unusual. Perhaps, it shows the level of racism in American society that the cop talking to Ellington, was an enthusiastic fan of his!

It would be wrong, however, to see black jazz musicians merely as passive victims, because in a multitude of ways, they made their voice heard in the struggle. After all, Martin Luther King, addressing the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival said that “jazz speaks for life”. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time or John Coltrane’s Alabama certainly spoke up for life - defiantly, angrily and passionately.


But the struggle for a better society can take different forms. The civil rights movement included a cultural struggle, which affected not just the music but what it came packaged in – the album covers. Look at these and what do you see?

s ellalouis AllCDCovers miles davis milestones 2001 retail cd front

Your answer will depend on a whole range of factors. John Berger wrote, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe.” So take the album cover on the left: if you do not know who they are (there is nothing on the front sleeve to identify them) then they are a black woman and black man sitting on chairs smiling at the camera.

However, the chances are that even if you don’t like jazz, you will recognise Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. That in turn will affect how you see it, including feelings towards their music. But put this album in context: it was released in 1956, less than 12 months after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat for a white man. What might the reaction have been when seeing it on its release? They look like anyone’s relatives. Their humanity shines through. But of course, knowing who they are adds a twist because they possess such fame that their names are not required on the cover to identify them, and the photographer chosen to take the picture was Phil Stern, the lead photographer for Vogue. They have status. It is an image of positive affirmation, something to rejoice in.

Likewise with the other album cover. You might just see a man wearing a rather cool green shirt. It is indeed a fine shirt. But look at Miles Davis (Milestones, 1958) looking at you. In his autobiography, he wrote that whether on stage or on his record covers, he wanted to break from the image of jazz musician grinning purely for the enjoyment of a white audience because he felt it was demeaning – too much of a throwback to minstrels – so he just looks straight at you.

 our music BackatChickenShack

This same focus is true of Ornette Coleman Quartet, on their This is our Music (1961). In the context of a period of history when black people were expected to get off the pavement and walk in the gutter to allow space for a white person, these photographs suggest that these men wouldn’t in a million years consider doing so.
Jimmy Smith on the cover of Back at the Chicken Shack (1963) is also wearing a pretty damn cool shirt, and trousers with a razor sharp crease. You may say, and so what? Photographed by Francis Wolff and with an album design by Reid Miles (one of a series of iconic albums for the Blue Note label) Smith oozes style, wit and sophistication. Yet this was at a time when politicians and the Ku Klux Klan (often being both one and the same) were violently denying that black people could have any such attributes.

The working class have often used clothes as a form of rebellion, for example Teddy Boys, Mods and Punk Rockers. Here they are a contrast with the location. Smith's urban elan is juxtaposed with a chicken coop, with its echoes of the Deep South. The composition though makes it clear that he is no farm slave, not with that style and that look. The shot is taken from slightly below Smith, so he is looking down on us, the viewer. Here is someone who has pride, someone who is his own master. He is in control. So for the black audience, these were images of self-respect, dignity and independence. For the white audience they were a challenge – do you think these people are not your equals?

weinsist Mohawk

However, affirmation and positive images can only go so far. The civil rights movement was also about direct action, with many in the movement demanding a greater militancy. And so does some of the album covers of the period. Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist recreates a scene at a lunch counter, the focus of that year’s battleground, with the sit-ins in white-only establishments. The title and image are totally unambiguous. Look at the size of the title – in block letters and with an exclamation mark. It's a demand, not a request. The stridency of the cover perfectly matches the mood of the album which was one of the first jazz albums to directly attack racism. Tracks tackled subjects such as slavery, the Sharpeville Massacre, pride in African nationalism and opposition to the racist Jim Crow laws.

A band which was very much involved in the movement was The New York Art Quartet, a free jazz ensemble who would cause some controversy in their brief existence when they included the incendiary black beat poet LeRoi Jones in some of their performances. On their 1965 album Mohawk, Dutch artist Marte Roling’s witty illustration is similarly direct. In it she features a placard reading ‘Freedom now’ in the cut-away brain. Politics, it suggests, was on everyone’s minds.

archieshepp attica blues impulselp MonkUnderground

Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues (1972) is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (one track on the album is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like it was a rifle. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games, giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. The composition of the photograph evokes militancy: a great cover and a great album.

A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But then, this is Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve for Underground won a Grammy for its design (photography by Norman Griner and supervised by Columbia Records art director, John Berg) but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because this was the same year Martin Luther King was been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States. Although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance, people saw allusions closer to home. It wasn’t a great leap of imagination to see the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Or conflating the resistance to the Nazis with that of resistance to the racist US state. Or perhaps that at the time of the Black Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening to the establishment.

Nina Simone High Priestess of Soul   MilesDavisBitches

The civil rights campaign spawned a greater interest in black history. The Black Arts Movement promoted African-American art and demanded a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and black history in general. High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone’s 1967 album has her as Cleopatra. It, like Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was however a greater significance beyond wearing fancy dress. (And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra). The image here had a clear message – black people, including women, should not be written out of history. Cleopatra, whatever Hollywood might say (and in light of the recent Oscars, it still obviously has issues with race) was a strong black queen, something African-American women could draw strength from.

Both these albums’ designs were overseen by John Berg. The gatefold sleeve has a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, with the black African figures in the centre, reflecting the fact that humanity first came from that continent. The double album was one of the first LPs which would be labelled jazz-rock and was a successful attempt to go beyond jazz’s confines and reach the larger rock audience. The artist also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.

Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg in 1932, Klarwein’s mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. They fled Germany in 1934 and settled in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. You can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work which derive from these associations. Tellingly, he later added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that Judaism and Islam needed to understand and respect each other.

OrnetteColemanFreeJazz album mingus ah um

Not everything was figurative though. Elsewhere on this website, Christine Lindey has written how the Russian Revolution gave artists a sense of freedom to explore their art. The civil rights and anti-war movements may have been a less intense class struggle than the Bolshevik Revolution, but they likewise gave space to new artistic and cultural expressions. One grew out of New York, Abstract Expressionism. So it is apt that this 1961 album Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollock’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here. Berger says of Pollock that his genius was to create a paintings where “continuous surface patterns which are perfectly unified without the use of any obvious motif”. It's a statement which could serve as a good description of Coleman’s music. It gives a sense of freedom in the art, a feeling that Coleman was attempting to achieve with his music, and something which people on the streets, in the schools and in the diners were fighting for.

The sleeve to Mingus Ah Um (1959) is by a Japanese American, Neil Fujita, who was also responsible for another 1950s classic – Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Previous to being a graphic designer he had enlisted in the U.S. Army whilst still having relations in Japan. Which as well as making family gatherings a little tense, might also have given him a sense of being outside the American mainstream. Fujita was also responsible for the paperback cover designs of two books which in different ways would question American values and become immensely popular – Catch 22 and The Godfather.

This marvellous album harks back to the big band sound whilst incorporating the new post-bop. It captures the mood between the certainty of the 1940s and the clear-cut cause of fighting fascism, with the questioning of the 1960s. Who were they fighting now? That sense of in-betweeness is what one gets from looking at the lovely cover, which owes a debt to Miro and Picasso. Look at it at different times and you’ll see something different each time, something which either cannot be articulated or can be so in different ways. Perhaps that grappling for meaning is why Mingus, a highly articulate man, chose an almost nonsensical title. Not that all the album is hidden in codes. There is one track which is very direct – Fables of Faubus. It was written as an explicit protest against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of nine African-American children into Little Rock Central High School.

There was however a tension in the design for jazz albums which mirrored that of the music itself – what style should they take? A no-nonsense direct approach which confronted the issues head on? But that might alienate audiences, and we should remember that the vast majority of record design teams were white. Or should they play safe with images of the musicians which would make greater commercial sense, and could still make a point with subtlety? The problem was that with the National Guard on the streets, subtlety did not seem an appropriate response. There was nothing subtle about water hoses or police batons. Christine Lindey ends her piece by saying: “the dilemma of creating innovatory art which is accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved”, and this statement is surely true of both album design and jazz music itself.

In jazz music, the cutting edge was seen as free jazz, but as the years rolled on it started to lose its black audience. Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice wrote: “It is the jazz issuing from the friction and harmony of the American Negro with his environment that captured the beat and tempo of our times”. But the fact was that by the mid-sixties many black Americans were moving to a different beat, a soul or funk one. For them the avant-garde of jazz was too abstract, too removed from their daily experiences.

Jazz continues, as does the fight for civil rights, and with the Black Lives Matter campaign for example. As does, even in these digital times, album cover design. However, the albums created by the cross-fertilisation of jazz and civil rights are great examples of music as cultural struggle, with sleeves to match.



Murder, Mavericks and Marxism
Friday, 22 January 2016 23:33

Murder, Mavericks and Marxism

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett looks analyses crime fiction from a socialist perspective.

You don’t need to be a professor of English to know that crime fiction is very popular at the moment. Look at the W.H Smith top sellers for 2015 and you’ll find eleven out of the twenty are crime/thriller novels; look at the TV schedules and you will see a proliferation of the genre. Through globalisation, the genre’s writers and their investigators, settings and corpses are to be found across the planet. Why is that? Why do people like reading or watching drama where people get murdered (usually in very unpleasant ways)? In particular, why are they popular with socialists, activists and trade unionists? And can the explanation for the boom in Scandinavian crime fiction offer any clues? I asked myself these questions after returning from a local demonstration against a fatal police shooting, only to then settle down to read a crime novel where the hero cop does just such a thing as regularly as he cleaned his teeth. Distrust of the police is high both here and in the States and with a growing number of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement, it is getting even higher. Yet, crime fiction remains very popular, despite the fact that it usually has the police, be they private or state, as the good guys. Being both a socialist and a fan of the genre, I thought I would try to offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, it might be helpful to define what I see as a crime novel. Writer, H. R. F. Keating, simply defined it as a story with a crime. If that is the case though, Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (1890) should be regarded as a crime novel because it includes what today would be regarded as a serial killer, but as much as I love the genre I wouldn’t push my luck by saying the great nineteenth century French novel was a forerunner of the CBS TV series Criminal Minds. To make things simpler in the labyrinth of sub-genres, I will concentrate on works of fiction which have one or more murders at their heart, with the plot revolving around an individual or group of individuals, who may be the police, private detectives or an individual who takes the role of such (such as a journalist) to solve it. For me, that is a detective novel. (A thriller is its noisy more action-packed younger sibling but I will be leaving them to jump across buildings somewhere else). I will however, look at both novels and television because in my opinion they have obviously symbiotic relationship; both feeding off each other and helping to continue the genre’s popularity.

The detective genre has increased its literary status over the years but it is still rather looked down upon; simply the phrase genre fiction can drip with distaste from some; you will rarely see a crime novel in the literary prizes unless they are specifically for crime writers. Yet, ‘serious’ writers such Yeats and Auden have been devotees. Others, such as Martin Amis and Isabel Allende, who do appear in such lists, have tried their hand at writing one for themselves. Frankly they have not been their best work, so it can’t be that easy a form to write in. In the world of genre fiction there has been far more written on science fiction (or future fiction if you prefer) and fantasy. I have friends who passionately argue how such genres can analyse present society and explore future ones whereas crime fiction is simply a formulaic re-enforcement of the status quo. I disagree, but then we could end this all by simply saying that it is all a matter of taste: so to many, a trilogy of novels where small fantasy creatures quest for a ring, are the greatest of all time; to me they are long winded yarns about small fellas with furry feet who take their bleeding time in a narrative which is akin to watching a tin of Dulux getting less wet. But where would be the fun in just calling it personal preference?

The body count mounts up

Of course, not all detective fiction is the same. As mentioned above, here is not the place to explore all the sub and sub-sub genres which multiply by the day (Crime Fiction by John Scaggs is a good introduction for those who are interested) but it is useful to have a quick look at the development of the main strands of the detective novel. Personally, I find Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder an excellent starting point for a quick resume.

Being a Marxist, Mandel believed that crime is a product of class society and that the police are a part of the repressive state apparatus. He also believed that there is a relationship between the ideas, and therefore the art, of a society, and the way that society organises itself. In the book he notes the birth of the detective novel coincided with the industrial revolution; with the rapid rise in industrialisation came mass poverty, and a huge disparity of wealth between the haves and have nots. The problem for the ruling class was that whilst they weren’t too bothered by the poor ripping off the poor, it did start to worry them if it threatened their wealth or the production of it. Industrialisation meant collective workplaces which might mean efficient ways of producing profit but it also created a space where people could organise and start to rebel against the appalling exploitation. Something more efficient and reliable was required than what had previously been in operation, so the Bow Street Runners which operated since the mid 1700 were replaced in 1829 by the Metropolitan Police. Crime and punishment became an issue for discussion. And novels.

 the moonstone rev

 Many point to E.T.A. Hoffman’s novel Mademoiselle de Scuderi (1819) as the first detective novel. In it a Miss Marple -type figure (a hundred years before the venerable woman from St. Mary Mead first made an appearance in print) proves the innocence of the police’s prime suspect. Charles Dickens refers to the police in Oliver Twist (1837) and features a detective, Inspector Bucket, in Bleak House (1852). Dickens is also responsible for what is believed to be one of the first English murder mysteries, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870). The novel though which is credited to be the first English detective novel is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868). One that would set down many of the ground rules of the genre. The writer however who is generally regarded as really starting the whole bloodbath is Edgar Allan Poe. In The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841) he created detective Auguste Dupin. Dupin, with his astute forensic mind, would be the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes forty-odd years later. The genius detective had arrived. Mandel sees Holmes as the epitome of a bourgeois society that believes that reason is all and if all the rules are followed then all will be well.

With mass literacy, coupled with advancements in printing techniques, the working class could read mass-produced works of fiction, often, as with the case of Dickens and Collins, in comparatively cheap periodicals. Included in which, were these early detective novels. If the social fractures of the industrial revolution created fertile ground for the birth of the detective novel, indeed, the creation of the real detectives themselves (although not quite of the intellectual level of Sherlock), then what followed would give rise to two more. World War One had seen millions suffering a hitherto unknown scale of industrial slaughter on the battlefield, only to be followed by an industrial and financial crash in peace time. The previous norms were challenged and the individual seemed lost in a society in crisis and so two more archetypal individual detectives came into the world - of very different types - but sharing the reassuringly ability to make sense of the puzzle of the world around them. In Britain, Holmes was followed by a host of living room detectives (usually of upper class or upper-middle class status) in what has been called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction [which is usually defined as being in the twenties and thirties], with writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and the best-selling author of all time, Agatha Christie. The detectives created here, such as Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion and Hercule Poirot still continue to be popular, with many a hard-pressed Sunday night TV producer finding employment for actors who can talk toff or act serving afternoon tea.

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At the same time across the Atlantic, a more rugged individualism appeared with the hard-boiled detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett with Sam Spade and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939) setting the scene for the classic private eye. Like Dickens, both Hammett and Chandler started writing in periodicals, which both gave them a chance for publication and access to a mass market. For them, analysing clues and solving puzzles were not as important as interviewing suspects (often with a slap or two) and drinking whisky. Miss Marples they ain’t. Mandel makes the point that these are transitional detectives: unlike the majority of the Golden Age detectives, they are people who have to work for a living and work from an office. What they do have in common with their English country house cousins is the fact that they are tracking individuals and not criminal organisations, a task which clearly they are not suited to. With the rise of organised crime, would come yet another new type of detective, the police procedural.

The horror of World War Two would also lengthen the rope required for the suspension of disbelief for the comfortable English county home murder mystery. Not that it was killed off, the omnipresent detective, be they in the oak panelled library; walking the streets of LA or working in the police station remained (and remains) popular, perhaps even reassuring. Edmund Wilson writing in 1944 found it a relief that someone knew what was going on in a world gone mad. Maybe that was one of the reasons for the rise after the war of two more of the giants of hard-boiled detective fiction, Ross Macdonald and Chester Himes. But society needed more than clever individuals for controlling discontents so what took central place was detective fiction where the main protagonist was a part of a team. Detective novels, like all literature, feeds off itself and so includes in its ranks Charles Dicken’s Inspector Bucket and Nagio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, as well as Ruth Rendall’s Wexford, Colin Dexter’s Morse, Henning Mankell’s Wallender, P.D James’ Adam Dalgliesh and many many more, all supping cold tea in that busy fictional police station.

From these, have sprung a multitude of sub-genres. Such a variety is not solely down to the author’s (or TV script writer’s) imagination but also the growth of technology. Mandel cites the advent of photography and the telephone as having an important effect on real and fictional crime-fighting. But published back in 1984, he skips over the growth of forensic science (DNA for example), surveillance or the internet. These have created new stories or at the very least, new elements, of old narratives. One example will suffice: the CBS series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation follows a Las Vegas forensic team who solve murders using science. As a part of a team they belong to the police procedural, however, as critic Scaggs discusses, the lead criminologist Gil Grissom, is an outsider, with an incredible brain stuffed with knowledge – not unlike one Sherlock Holmes.

The evidence

One obvious reason for the genre’s success is that there is some good stuff out there. This is not to say that there is not crap as well in the crime section. There certainly is. But there have been works of obvious literary merit. Those who argue that the detective novel is all plot and no narrative may have the point with Christie but with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) or Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992)? The detective novel can be literary enough to satisfy a variety of needs. Locations can be conjured up effectively as any worthy prize winner. P. D James for one, paints believable and gripping settings, such as the nursing school in Shroud for a Nightingale (1971); what about Peter Robinson’s Yorkshire Dales or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh or Tudor London in C.J Sansom’s Shardlake series?

Characterisation can be as strong as anything in mainstream fiction, sometimes achieved with just one sentence. Here’s Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1940) meeting someone with a rather unfortunate body odour; but then “an occasional whiff of personality drifted back to me”. Or Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1953) expounding his philosophy on the world, “There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set yourself”. Jean-Paul Sartre, eat your heart out! Other writers spend almost as much care on the characterisation as they do on the murder case. For example, look at Henning Mankell’s Swedish detective Wallender, who in addition to solving murder cases copes with his father’s dementia (which he himself also gets) and his daughter’s resentment. The first series of Danish TV’s The Killing (2007) had each episode covering twenty-four hours in the investigation of the murder of Nanna Birk Larson, allowing time for the drama to explore the grief of the parents of the murdered woman.

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The crime TV series (Morse, Murder One, The Wire, The Bridge, Spiral) also boast fine acting and have high production values. They treat the audience with respect and as intelligent beings who are able to understand a narrative with many strands, which takes time to evolve. Detective fiction can have humour, tragedy (well I guess it needs that) and hope. Because of one success, businesses with all the imagination that ageing capitalism can muster, tend to want copy it. Before 1962 record companies were all looking for the next Elvis; after, the next Beatles (we will not dare ponder if now, God help us, it is the next Justin Bieber). The same applies to detective fiction. With the success of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) Nordic Noir boom really took off. Everyone was looking for the next Larsson. But it is not solely one big conspiracy, it seems reasonable that if you have read one particular type of novel or seen a TV series which you enjoyed then it is logical to try another one.

Blood stains

One popular theory is that we enjoy detective fiction because we all enjoy violence and it is a vicarious thrill to read or watch it (Mandel considered this to be an innocent pursuit – it being better to read about violence that practise it). Now it is true that in your average Agatha Christie it is like a war zone on a bad day, but they tend to be almost bloodless deaths; the point is to find the killer and not to revel in the gore. Authors such as Jo Nesbo and Mark Billingham do have graphic scenes but I don’t think they are there primarily for some kind of thrill. For starters, the internet has far worse. When I was a public librarian in north London, I saw hundreds of people borrow detective novels, amongst whom many were pensioners, and they did not strike me as wannabe homicidal killers. (Apart from on the occasions when we forgot to put the daily newspapers out). I think it is a far too negative view of humanity. Maybe such horror, if I can steal from Terry Eagleton’s discussion of tragedy in Sweet Violence (2002), helps meet certain emotional and psychological needs by confronting our fears and nightmares. There can be no doubt however that there is an issue concerning the level of violence against women included in the genre; the vast majority of the victims are female. How does that sit with the genre’s popularity with the population, including and perhaps especially, with those who consider themselves socialists?


There are some novels and television series, including the detective, where the depiction of women is sexist and where the violence is gratuitous, that cannot, should not, be denied or passed over. But is it central to the detective genre? It is perhaps instructive to look at the publishing sensation which is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Disturbing sexual violence is present in all the books of the Millennium Trilogy. What happens to Lisbeth Salander is appalling, but is the reader invited to see her as a victim or as a fighter? Do we not cheer when she gets revenge? The author, Stieg Larsson, by all accounts was on the left and originally the book was called Men who hate Women which seems an obvious sign of his allegiances. What complicates it further however is the story which writer and critic, Barry Forshaw relates about an interview with Larsson’s father, who said that he had complained to his son that there was too much sex in the book, to which Stieg replied that it was commercially important.

This does hint that an essential part of the modern detective novel is sex, if that is so, then does that include sexual violence, specifically against women? With that question comes quickly a second: if so, why there are so many women readers and why there are so many female detective writers? Novelist Melanie McGrath sees it as no big mystery, because it gives women, “permission to touch on our own decorous feelings of rage, aggression and vengefulness, sentiments we’re encouraged to pack away.” Paula Hawkins in the Guardian, whilst discussing the success of the Girl on the Train (2015) writes that such books show “a desire among readers for stories that speak to their experiences.” Val McDermid (who herself has been criticised for sexual violence) says simply that the reason for so many great female writers is that, “Women are better at scaring us.”

I also think another reason for the macabre deaths is the distrust of the police. The maverick detective who ‘plays by their own rules’ is a staple of the genre yet the reader or viewer need to be able to overcome their opposition to the real-life police who do that. With cops in the real world killing people because of their colour of their skin or ignoring sexual violence there has to be a good reason to support, even cheer on, officers who break laws, doors or jaws in fiction; a purloined letter is not going to do that, capturing a sadistic torturer will. In the real world people see millions stolen by multi-nationals and the very rich go unpunished for non-payment of taxes or even theft, yet a family in a bedsit will be hounded for a minor infringement of their benefits; they see the justice system’s connivance in this bias. They need an incentive to support that system.

This has also given rise to fiction which is either centred on the criminal(s) themselves [for example, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969)] or where the reader/viewer has split loyalties. From many examples, I would pick the first HBO TV series of The Wire (2002), regarded by many as the greatest television series of all time (I’d probably be one of those), which pitted the Baltimore police department against the drug dealing Barksdale family, as a fine example of this.

In a situation of distrust of the establishment, even those stories featuring officers who behave well need to motivate the reader/viewer to be on their side. Here we have the troubled but sensitive individual detective, who may be in a team but is not really a creation of it. P.D James’ Dalgliesh is a poet and Dexter’s Morse is a sensitive, intellectual, loving opera and the classics equally. Paul Foot pondered the popularity of Morse and considered him to be, “most people’s role model of what a policeman/detective ought to be like.” The key word is ought. Terry Eagleton writing about the quirkiness of some of Dickens’ characters says, “You cannot have deviation without the norm”, comparing Fagin to Oliver Twist. So the reader/viewer warms to the detective because they are the ‘characters’ who are surrounded by mundanity and ineffectiveness. The norm in these books/TV series isn’t how Marxists view the police, as class oppressors, but simply as being dull and unimaginative. The reader/viewer supports the investigator as an individual, not the state institution.

I, like many others, read detective fiction because I like, to use a hideous piece of management jargon, the goal-driven structure of it (which for some is the very reason to hate it). Right from the start, to solve the puzzle has been the central thread of the genre. The American Golden Age crime writer, S.S Van Dine, saw it as much as a sporting competition as an intellectual challenge and compiled a much quoted set of rules which the genre must adhere to for it to be a fair contest. I am not interested, and do not like, graphic scenes of violence for their own sake, but catching a serial killer adds a greater challenge, a greater urgency, to finding a solution. For in the crime novel, unlike life under capitalism, the best brains and the best people tend to win.

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Many of the victims are female but there are also many female writers and female detectives; and some combining both. These include giants of the genre: Sue Grafton with private eye Kinsey Millhone; Sara Peretksy with V.I Warshawski, Patricia Cornwall with medical examiner Kay Scarpetta or Val McDermid with Kate Brannigan. The list of female detective writers is long and rich. With a female detective working in a male dominated world, sexism cannot but be addressed. The ITV 1990’s ITV series Prime Suspect written by Lynda La Plante is one such example, centred not just on DCI Jane Tennison hunting a murderer but also confronting the sexism in her team. Grafton and Peretsky subvert the macho hard-boiled PI genre to question social and cultural values, a similar aspect can be seen in La Plante’s police procedural.

Heather Worthington in Key Concepts of Crime Fiction (2011) writes that, “Crime fiction offers a contained and containing world in which contemporary cultural and social anxieties can be explored”. This includes gender and sexual orientation. Again, from Worthington, “McDermid has openly stated that her serial amateur detective, Lindsay Gordon, was part of a wider project to introduce an openly homosexual character into mainstream fiction and so normalise gay and lesbian sexuality.”

One should also add race. Again, even if it is not the main issue, having a black detective operating in a racist society throws up all sorts of issues. The BBC series Luther, which has Idris Elba in magnificent form playing DCI John Luther is respected by his team (and the viewers) is not primarily about racism but the character’s dedication, which is clearly damaging him, cannot be but a positive image.

 Chester Himes wrote a series of cracking novels in the late 1950s featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones as Harlem detectives. Although not overtly political, Himes didn’t ignore racism in the books (Himes himself had experienced racism first hand, which even his fame did not protect him from) but did so by the placement of black cops enforcing white laws in black Harlem. Walter Mosley with his 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress introduced Easy Rawlins who by the end of the novel has become a LA private detective.

Chetsre Himes

The series of novels featuring the private investigator reboots the hard-boiled genre to explore the African-American experience in the post-war years. All in all, it makes the fictional cop-world far more inclusive than the real.

In the DNA

So as we’ve seen the detective novel can be more than a dead body in the library. Worthington, I think describes the genre’s contradictions well: “Crime fiction is at once deeply conservative in its formulaic conventions and yet potentially radical in its diversity. What seems simple is, in fact complex. The genre offers new and exciting insights into the cultures that produce it; its very status as popular and accessible literature means that it responds quickly to change.” Looking at that quote, words such radical, diversity, cultures and change jump out and offer good reasons why many a socialist enjoys a good detective novel.

Many have written them. Even in what may seem to be the most conservative of sub-genres, the Golden Age of Detectives, sitting by Dorothy L Sayers et al, there can be found one author who died in the Spanish Civil War fighting Franco (Christopher St. John Spriggs), British Communist Party Members, cabinet ministers of Clement Atlee post-war Labour Government (Ellen Wilkinson) and the wife of one of Stalin’s commissars (Ivy Low, married Maxim Litvinov, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs). Indeed, look at any of the era of the detective novel and you’ll find lefties. Dashiell Hammett for example, was a member of American Communist Party and in many of his novels, alongside witty dialogue and snappy characterisation, there are barbs at the American way of life. Ross Macdonald used his Lew Archer novels to highlight the corruption of the Californian myth of wealth and sunshine for all; or in other words, the local American Dream. Ten novels featuring detective Martin Beck by Marxists Per Wahoo and Maj Sjowall use cracking stories to counter the perception of Sweden as a democratic socialist paradise.            

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Generally, the criticisms of society or structures of society, are reformist rather than revolutionary: the faults can be rectified; the wrongs will be of a single incident of crime rather than its causes. The disease of corruption might not be cured but the temperature lessened. Sometimes what is at fault is the national state or the system but usually it is localised power, or it’s a corporation, or an individual who is in the wrong. But no matter what type of detective, or how damaged they might be, they all want justice. Paretsky for example has said, that it was essential that V.I Warshawski was female because hers would be a sensibility which said, “What is wrong in people’s lives and what should we do to fix it, not how many people can I blow away and look really tough and cool?”

Northern Lights

What is wrong in people’s lives is, I believe, an important part of the popularity of the Scandinavian crime writers, collectively known as Nordic Noir. Swedish author Liza Marklund for example, echoes Paretsky in citing the presence of “strong female heroines – who have actually behave like real women”. You can see that with Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helin) in Danish/Swedish TV series The Bridge, Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabol) in Swedish TV series The Killing or Rebecka Martinsson in Asa Larsson’s books. The stories may at first appear to be gloomy but people care about each other; they have real problems. Also, in many of them, there are no easy answers; there isn’t a sense of redemption and good triumphing over evil. It is more complex than that, indeed sometimes major characters are killed off. The form demands a result but not necessarily a total resolution.

Social comment is also often little disguised. Mention has already been made of Stieg Larsson and Sjowall & Wahloo, but there are many others. One could add Arne Dahl exploring the public rage against banks, or Mari Jungstedts’ view of a corrupted society or Marklund’s investigative reporter Annika Bengtzon who deals with such themes as domestic abuse or most obviously, Henning Mankell’s novels. One such example is Faceless Killers (1997) which highlights the racism in Sweden’s seemingly liberal society, now especially apt with the country closing its borders to refugees. Such corruption appears to us all the more shocking because many people have a perception of the region of having, in writer and journalist, Solomon Hughes’ glorious phrase, “weak-tea social democracy”. Or as Norwegian author, Thomas Enger, eloquently says, “The eruption of violence for instance, somehow seems more shocking in this more carefully controlled setting”. With the assassination of Olof Palme, the Prime Minister of Sweden, in 1986 and the Minister of Foreign affairs, Anna Lindh, in 2003, not to mention the massacre of 77 people by Anders Breivik in 2011, any notion of the region being a utopia has been seriously dented.

However, many people look at their society and their health care, or housing and education policy and find ours wanting. It still appears to be more shocking to read about drug gangs in Oslo than it does in LA, or even London. It also occurs to me that for Marxists, or simply just those people with a healthy questioning attitude to society, the reaction might not be that it is a surprise that it happens there but rather that it is confirmation that crime, corruption and alienation accompany capitalist societies - including those dressed up in liberal social democracy.

Of course, the fact of there is something new to exploit, to feed a large market, or the cashing in on success, plays a part (Ian Rankin has been quoted as saying, “Scandinavian crime writers are not better than Scottish ones, they just have better PR”). Or it could be that the crap stuff hasn’t been translated. Its location at the top of Europe could also be important: being near enough for us to recognise but different enough to interest. The cold vast landscape intrigues, entices but also frightens us. Or maybe that’s just soft, urban me.

Icelandic writer Ysra Sigurdardottir uses the desolate northeast of Greenland in the Day is Dark (2011) to such an effect. These are places which are made for dark tales of murder, revenge and betrayal. There is a reminder of the Western, of the individual on the frontier, which itself had so influenced the hard-boiled detective writers. Rebecka Martinson for example has a bolt-hole in Kiruna, Sweden’s northern most town. The cities can be recast in a bleaker, almost black and white picture, making it more noir than the reality.

Bringing to justice

I have not for a second meant to argue that all crime fiction is fantastic or that there is not some truly awful and/or reactionary stuff out there. I’ve read some of it. Nor is this meant to be one of those facile popular novelist Z is better than Tolstoy type pieces. But as Hughes puts it, “Once you write about crime, you are writing about the rules of society”. Whatever the writers personally feel about those rules, the contradictions of society cannot be completely hid. Whatever the intention, the nature and the purpose of the rules often are laid bare.

Returning to Mandel again, he places the popularity of the crime novel as a response to our intellectual alienation, of the monotonous drudgery of working for a system based on profit rather than need, so a fictional work where the intellect is tested and some kind of justice is achieved is rewarding. Nick Elliot, once head of BBC Drama, wrote of crime fiction that it “satisfies in us a secret yearning for justice, the unappeasable appetite for a fair world”. Although for those on the left I would say that it is hardly secret, but yelled from the rooftops.

Leon Trotsky may not have been talking of crime fiction when he said, “Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious world and complete life, that is to say his need for those major benefits of which society has deprived him” but surely we can find a reason for these stories within it? People are not fools; we recognise that these are not true depictions of law and order. We recognise that they are not documentaries of a fair world. We may sometimes want to escape into a world where the detective temporarily achieves a redress against wrong, but to do so permanently in the real one, we need more than the skill of an individual, we need the intellect, power and creativity of a whole class.