Phil Brett

Phil Brett

Phil Brett is a primary school teacher, who has written two novels (Comrades Come Rally and Gone Underground) set in a revolutionary Britain of the near future. In between planning lessons and marking, he is writing the third.

Their Blood-Soaked Liberty
Saturday, 09 December 2023 10:04

Their Blood-Soaked Liberty

Published in Fiction

Socialist crime novels are perhaps not a genre that comes obviously to mind, either for those who read crime fiction or fans of the socialist novel. Yet a genre it is.

The Belgian revolutionary Ernest Mandel was a lifelong enthusiast, writing a Marxist analysis of crime books. Pluto Press published a left-wing crime series including Nigel Fountain’s Days Like These, about the fight against fascism in north-east London in the 1970s, which remains a classic. From a feminist perspective Virago also have a significant list of crime fiction.

Phil Brett’s Their Blood-Soaked Liberty is the latest in his series of novels where the central figure – ‘heroes’ not really working for the left – is Pete Kalder. Kalder is a veteran socialist who has stumbled into detective work.

Brett’s book is not just a whodunit but also science fiction. It’s set in a future Britain where after a prolonged struggle a workers’ Government is in power. It is run by a broad alliance of socialist and anarchist groups and the storyline looks at attempts by the enemies of the fledging workers’ state to undermine and destroy it

We find Kalder rescuing works of art from millionaire collectors who have fled the revolution, and putting them on public display. However he is seconded to become the political lead for the CRIB, a sort of socialist Special Branch consisting of a few police officers who have come over to the side of the revolution and some tech wizards.

The book starts with the murder of an anarchist, Mike Stewart, who has been busy designing new people-focused townscapes. Its clear that his death is designed to stir tensions between the factions in the workers Government, but who did it, why and what else might they be planning?

Brett pursues the storyline through fast-paced chapters where there is no shortage of dramatic events to keep the reader hooked. We find The Shard as a sort of HQ for libertarians and anarchists, but on the other side of the Thames Alexandra Palace has been turned into a museum of the revolution.

A knowledge of the geography and politics of north-east London, where much of the action takes place, is not essential to read and enjoy the book, but for those who are familiar it adds an extra dimension.

There are other elements to the storyline which add perspective and interest. Brett looks at some of the structures that the new workers’ state has put in place, including community councils to run local neighbourhoods, William Morris style. There are workers’ tokens for money and workplace relations are of course significantly changed.

The book also has a high level of tech surveillance, used for investigation and monitoring but now in the interests of the people. It’s not specified quite how far into the future the book is set, but as a long serving trade union officer in telecoms I did find myself wondering whether a lot of the tech would actually work as brilliantly as it does in the book!

Brett and the CRIB relentlessly pursue the enemies of the new workers’ state. Obviously a review of a whodunit novel can’t reveal who it was – you should read the book to find out!

Suffice to say that Kalder and his comrades have some success in tackling the counter-revolution but by the end of the book it’s clear that the struggle to defend the workers’ state will have to go on.

Brett has written a highly readable volume of crime fiction that should be on the shelf or e-reader of socialists in the current day. It’s the third in Brett’s series of Pete Kalder crime novels. The first two books are reviewed on this website, here and here.

Their Blood-Soaked Liberty by Phil Brett, is available here.

Gone Underground: imagining revolution in Britain
Monday, 05 August 2019 15:40

Gone Underground: imagining revolution in Britain

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett has just published Gone Underground, the second of his Pete Kalder novels. It’s a crime novel, set in a future revolutionary Britain, and here he explains how he got the idea.

It was reading a number of the Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald which inspired me to write my own crime novel. The trouble was that whilst Archer or Chandler's Philip Marlowe or Hammett's Sam Spade are believable in the whisky bars of hard-boiled America, I didn't think I could envisage the same in Britain.

My imagination of such a novel set here merely extended to some seedy bloke investigating divorce cases. Not my cup of tea – let alone a bourbon on the rocks. So should I write a police procedural? Here was another problem though – for someone who considers himself a socialist, could I write a novel with a good guy from the Metropolitan Police? Hmmmm…….. The experience and memories of policing for many people has been one of kettling, Orgreave, or miscarriages of justice in such cases as the Tottenham Three. Making them good guys takes a very good writer, a whole lot of empathy and a cargo ship full of suspension of disbelief.

There was the option of writing a novel where the cop is the bad guy, maybe like Irvine Welsh's Filth – but then I'm a romantic, I like a hero.

So why not make sure that the reader sees the cop as being very different from the police force? P.D. James made her Inspector Dalgliesh a poet, and Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse is someone who as the great writer, journalist and activist Paul Foot said, was the type of liberal, cultured and fair police officer that everyone wants – but never encounters in the real world. Now I love both – yes, I know James was a Tory peer, but such are the contradictions of capitalism – but again, I couldn't see myself being able to write like that.

One final possibility was that in many novels (and indeed TV series) nowadays, the murders are brutal, serial and usually involve torture (often of women). (For more on the sub-genres of the crime novels see my Murder, Mavericks and Marxism). This allows the reader to support the cop breaking any law whatsoever 'to get the job done' because that is the lesser of two evils. Again though, this wasn't something I wanted to write.

So I returned to the problem of writing a novel in Britain – but if it was serious crime, where were the cops? The answer was obvious and was staring me in the face. I believe that a revolution is possible in Britain. Here, as in so many other countries, people have shown that the existing order can be overthrown. Why, we even chopped old Charlie Stuart's head off, and at the Putney debates that followed in 1647 there were days of revolutionary discussion of what a new Britain would look like. Just look around: Russia 1917, Hungary 1956, Paris 1968, the eastern bloc in the late eighties: when there is upheaval, the repressive state apparatus crumbles. So there was my answer: set the crime novel in a future Britain, which is undergoing a revolutionary change.

I wrote Comrades Come Rally (the first Pete Kalder novel - see Ian Birchall's book review ), taking place on the eve of a revolution. This would solve the 'where are the cops?' question and also allow me to ponder what such a situation might look like. What might dual power of a still functioning, but increasingly desperate parliament, alongside nation-wide workers’ councils look like? It is a crime novel, but the central characters include Pete Kalder, an ex-cop, Victoria Cole, and the revolution itself.

It isn't science fiction, purely for the reason that I am a techno-idiot – my greatest discovery of recent years is learning how to use the Microsoft Snipping Tool! Writing it, I did notice that so many of the novels set in the future do not share my optimism. The norm is dystopian. Brave New World, the Handmaid's Tale, the Hunger Games, 1984 et al – all oppressive and reactionary futures.

Now, these are great works of fiction. Indeed, it was Orwell's 1984, alongside the Clash’s first album, which helped form my politics, but I see the future as having the possibility of liberation. Rosa Luxembourg wrote that we face the choice of either socialism or barbarism; many liberals will see our world of global warming with the likes of Trump and Johnson, with their reactionary politics and bad hair, as advance guards of the latter.

Many of these types of novels act as warnings. Which is all well and good, but what of the working class? If they are mentioned at all, they are victims of this society – not agents of change, able to challenge and defeat it. Dystopian novels, let me repeat, represent some brilliant writing, and I rank them as some of my favourite reads, but they are obviouslypessimistic in their world view. I am not.

So the future in the Pete Kalder novels is a positive one. In my latest, Gone Underground, the revolution has happened. It is not utopia. There is still the muck of ages, as Marx called it – people are not perfect. It is a transitional workers’ state, based on freedom and democracy. It’s one which the former ruling class of the UK, and those in other countries, want to topple. With the police force collapsed, who will tackle the crimes of MI5 and their ilk?

Here was my crime, and here was the reason for the police not being around. Kalder himself is not a cop, he is a type of outsider, being a Party member – but cynical, and a vain, rather self-obsessed one. Clothes are rather important to him, he's as likely to take against someone for wearing a naff pair of jeans, as he is for their reactionary politics. Yes, he is aided by ex-cops which have switched sides – and which as Ian Birchall has pointed out, did in some cases happen in Paris 1968 – but it is categorically not the police force we know today.

My books are not intended to be political discussions, they are crime novels with a political dimension, with a few jokes thrown in. But while hopefully engaging the reader to guess the murderer, they do ask a few questions. What might this future look like? How would law and order be organised? What environmental action would be taken? Would people be organised in Leninist parties or in looser movements?

In C.J. Sansom’s wonderful Shardlake novels set in the Tudor era, and S.G. MacLean's Seeker series set in Cromwell's Protectorate, the events and politics of the time are used as motors to help drive the plot. I attempt a similar thing, only in the future. They perhaps contain, to quote a lyric from the punk band Buzzcocks, a "Nostalgia for an age yet to come". Of course, you don't have to share my politics to like them. Indeed, you might actually share my politics and hate them, but there is a political basis to them – one of hope, even in a murder enquiry.

You can purchase either Comrades Come Rally or Gone Underground here.

Can we buy the marbles sir? A school trip to the British Museum
Sunday, 31 March 2019 14:40

Can we buy the marbles sir? A school trip to the British Museum

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett takes his primary school class for a dialectical trip round the British Museum                           

I visit the British Museum fairly regularly. Of course, I'm not unique in that. Recent figures show that whilst it has lost its position as the UK's most popular attraction (to the Tate Modern, which was helped by its extension and massive exhibitions such as the Picasso), the British Museum, with 5.8 million visitors and in second place, can hardly be called a ghost town.

However, unlike a lot of those folk who visit, I tend to be accompanied by thirty children under twelve, all wanting the toilet and to know when they can (a) go to the shop and (b) eat their lunch. Even then, I am not special: in the BM Annual Report, it states that approximately 888,000 children attended, and of those 323,000 were on school trips.

Concern around ferrying young children across London and the hassle of filling in risk assessment forms of the equivalent length and complexity of NASA's launches to Jupiter is clearly not too off-putting for teachers. Reasons for a visit are many. The BM has very helpful attendants, there are great educational facilities – and yes, somewhere for the kids to eat, and go to the loo.

The ground floor

The fabulous ground floor of the British Museum

The other attraction is of course the exhibits. These are undeniably wow-inducing. Moving from outside the Greek Revival museum building itself, designed by Sir Robert Smirke RA, into the main courtyard, with its tessellated glass roof (designed by Buro Happold) and then into the ground floor with its huge Greek, Assyrian and Roman artefacts, monuments and sculptures – primary school children like things BIG – it is surely one of the most impressive ground floors of any building, anywhere in the world. Like all museums, it also allows you to roam. Within reason – and within view of the accompanying adult for that group — the children can explore for themselves.

They can also start to ask questions – questions which include ones which have occupied adults for centuries, and some which are still very much in the present. Of course, they are framed in their age-related language and world view, but nonetheless touch upon issues which others, older in their years, still debate.

The mummies 2

The mummies – like a magnet for kids

One such issue arises with the trip upstairs to the mummies. No matter what the reason for the visit, a trip there is a must. It is always the noisiest, with children exclaiming wonderment (and sometimes horror). Because of the Horrible Histories books, many will already be acquainted with the Ancient Egyptians, and will talk at length of what they know. It is perhaps their first meeting of history outside of British history — including for such children as those I work with, in inner-London and multi-cultural schools.

The questions that they often ask are why are these people's graves allowed to be opened up and put on show? Is that allowed for anyone else? Is there a time limit for when it is not seen as disrespectful? What is the difference between a myth and an organised religion? Are there ghosts here and will they come alive?. The children from countries outside of Europe, even if not from northern Africa, always enjoy the sense that civilisations existed far in advance of Britain at that time. But then they often ask questions like how did they get in the museum, and should they still be here?

Decolonisation, Nelson, and keeping out the riff-raff

They don't use the term decolonisation, but that is what they are addressing. How much are European institutions – be they universities or museums – part of an imperialist history, which consciously or otherwise, they still uphold? Debate usually ensues within the class – I am referring to thirty upper KS2 children and not in the Marxist sense! Many will simply think it is great that they are here so they can see and learn from them. Others want to hear how these were found, and want to talk about whether people have the right to take things from tombs, and if they do, who is allowed? Should artefacts be sold or worse, simply just taken abroad?

Many of the artefacts in the Egyptian collection, as well as in others, owe their location due to one Horatio Nelson, for having beaten Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile. Because in doing so, he helped hasten France's involvement in that area. With French imperial interests thwarted, the British took over. The famous Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 by Napoleon's envoy – Pierre Francois Bouchard – but after the defeat, France was obliged to hand over all its archaeological discoveries to Britain. Local Egyptians were not consulted. This was soft imperial power, accompanying the harder variety, of the powerful Royal Navy.

This story is very typical of Western European museums. The British Museum – and British Library and Natural History Museum – are founded on collections made by Sir Hans Sloane. As well as having an 80s fashion movement named after him and allegedly creating hot chocolate, he was a keen naturalist and collector. Whilst visiting the Caribbean in 1687, in part to see his wife's extensive slave holdings, he found time to detail the horrific brutality meted out to slaves and to collect plant specimens.

I do not know what action, if any, he took about the former, but he bequeathed the latter to a grateful nation. Here, one might consider what Sumaya Kassim of the Birmingham Museum and Art Galleries, has said – that museums are not politically neutral, because for many white audiences they reflect a romanticised view of the European past, whereas for black and minority ethnic audiences, they represent a continuation of theft and trauma. And I would add – racism. Few museums have seriously embraced putting up explanations of how the context of some of their collections has changed from a colonial trophy, to a thing of curiosity, to a work of world art.

The British Museum, the world's first public national museum, opened in 1753 at its present location but what was then Montagu House. Interestingly, Buckingham House (later Palace) had previously been considered for the location of Sloane's collection. This heralded the growth of museum building, flourishing in the age of Enlightenment, where reason was king.

Of course, enlightenment had its limits. For starters, entry to the building was by ticket only, which you had to apply for. One had to be 'properly dressed' to visit – to keep out the riff-raff from this enlightenment). Eventually, as Britain's Empire grew, so did the nation's' collections of items of scientific, cultural and historical interest. Montagu House was demolished and the museum rebuilt, re-opening in 1852.

The Empire and the Marbles

Within the Empire, the explorer was followed by the merchant and banker accompanying the soldier and the administrator and alongside the scientist and archaeologist. This could be done in the name of Reason, of expanding humanity’s knowledge – all for the greater good! Well, obviously not all – obviously not for those in the colonies, especially the slaves. Or even those in Britain. Yes, a few bits and bobs could be put on show so people could see how 'exotic' the world was, and in doing so, show how far the Empire stretched, but whilst they might be allowed admission, heaven help them if they wanted the vote or to join a trade union. But they could be proud to be British.

But if a visitor nowadays wants some aids to explain how the British Museum came to have such artefacts, they will have to look pretty hard. Most museums are rather reluctant to explain the circumstances of how they came to get them. Words such as 'sourced', 'acquired', 'donated' or 'purchased' are usually used. What they precisely mean, is often left hanging. So Captain James Cook's journeys led to him adding many 'discoveries' to the 'nation', which he 'acquired'. One wonders how. Rooted in such a past, Western European museums, especially the British Museum, have been embroiled in many controversies.


The Parthenon Marbles still draw in the crowds

The best known example of is that of the Elgin Marbles. On a school visit, we usually do visit the Parthenon Marbles, as they are more properly known. The first reaction is one of disappointment, that they are not the type of marbles which the children are familiar with. Nor can they buy them from the shop.

They weren't actually purchased in the first place, but were removed by people working for the 7th Earl of Elgin from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1812. Even at the time there was controversy about this action, with debates in parliament and Lord Byron denouncing it as looting. It should be also stated, for those who may think that at least the theft was for the common good, that Elgin originally took them to decorate his mansion. He only sold them to parliament because of a costly divorce he needed to pay for.

He claimed that he had written permission from the ruling Ottoman Empire. However, despite the Ottoman's being rather keen on paperwork, no copies of this 'permission' have ever been found. But even if this is true, doesn't this smack of a similar situation with the dividing up of treasures between France and England during the Napoleonic Wars? Another example of imperialist powers carving up the world – its people, its resources, history, its culture and – literally in this case – its art.

 case for defence                                          

 The case for the defence

Maybe that is why the argument has slightly shifted, and now the case of the Remainers – in the British Museum, the term takes on a whole new meaning! – it is one of conservation. There is a small display which explains that they are here because of the need to conserve them for the world. For me, this is museum colonisation in its most blatant form. From the Victorians claiming the Empire was there to help govern, educate and protect the 'natives' because they couldn't do it themselves, to the British Museum protecting the Marbles because Athens cannot.

I confess that I am no expert on such matters, but I am guessing that Greek archaeologists, historians and renovators have some knowledge of looking after Ancient Greek artefacts. And the British Museum has made some rather large blunders even in the renovation arena, including the 1930 renovation of the Marbles, which not only broke some of them but also gave them an unnatural, white appearance.

Some aspects of decolonising museums, of stripping away at least some of the Imperial legacy which still resonates today, are complex. But some are straightforward. Let's turn the Elgin Marbles into Peter's Marbles, the glass spherical type, which he keeps at school. Edward, a school bully, takes them from him, intending to keep them at his home, claiming that another school bully wrote a note saying he could. But he has left that note at home. In any event, he decides to give them to the school so they can look after them. Are they Edward’s Marbles? The school’s? Of course not, they're Peter's. Give them back to him.

The real reason for inaction is that to return them would fuel a whole host of claims for the return of items presently in the Museum. Amongst many, there would be other Ottoman items to be handed back; the Lewis Chessman back to Scotland, Neanderthal remains back to Gibraltar, the Moai back to the Easter Island and the Lander Stool back to Nigeria. The latter item, like the Elgin Marbles, adds insult to injury, by coupling a European name to an artefact just because he 'found' a piece of Yoruba art. Lagos wants it back. The British Museum has it in storage. For those who fret that returning the controversial items would leave a huge empty space in central London, they might consider that like art galleries (see Art for, and by, the Many by Phil Brett) museums only show a fraction of their collection. In the British Museum's case, only about 1% is on show.

Soft power, revenue and the Sackler Trust

With the post World War 2 boom in tourism, museums and art galleries are important sources of profit-making for British hotel and restaurant owners. They also enhance national status, and help promote – or at least soften – the often cruel and violent reality of colonialism into an image of a powerful but fundamentally benevolent empire. The concept of soft power has changed since the nineteenth century, but not disappeared.

souvenir shop

Get your Rosetta Stone souvenirs here! Models of Nelson’s fleet should really be sold alongside them

The children on our school trips love the souvenir shops, but they can only bring in a fraction of the required revenue for museums, no matter how expensive those toy mummies are.

Purchased items in the collections don't come cheap. In 1999 the British Museum bought an exquisite Roman silver cup for £1.8 million, known today as the Warren Cup. In its day, it was the Museum's most expensive purchase. Not only is it an aesthetically lovely item from 1AD, but its depiction of two male lovers has had an important role in the battle for LGBTQ rights, with its first modern day owner – Edward Perry Warren – using it in his 1928 book 'A defence of Uranian Love'. So its value is multi-faceted – but has a massive price tag. Thus like the Elgin Marbles and so many of the other items in the British Museum, it has both progressive and reactionary meanings.

warren cup

The small but very pricey Warren Cup

More souvenirs can be flogged for the regular 'blockbuster' exhibitions, which can also raise revenues by charging entrance fees. Such exhibitions usually come with sponsorship, often from big corporations and trusts linked to the profits made by billionaire capitalists. Indeed, giving to the arts is a big thing for the multinationals. Not just the temporary exhibitions, but many of the galleries have corporate names – something I become aware of as I arrange to meet my Blue Table Group of children by the entrance to the Raymond and Beverley Sackler Wing.

The Sackler Trust has very recently halted all its 'philanthropic' giving because they say that they don't want to be a distraction from the worthy causes they support. Hmm, maybe! Or maybe they have decided that the controversy over the opioid drug crisis, and their link to the OxyContin scandal in the United States, is damaging their corporate image, like the demonstrations in American galleries which they are sponsoring.

So why have they been giving money in the first place? Care for the common folk? Again, hmm, maybe! Perhaps it’s more like the B list celeb that employs an accountant to stash his money away but always appears for Comic Relief?

It is, as Rob Reich, Professor of Ethics at Stanford University, says – a case of 'reputation laundering'. The British museum itself boasts online of the investment opportunities for a "Great stand-out campaign by aligning your brand with one of the world's most prestigious cultural institutions". People are now questioning this 'philanthropy' more and more. Recently, there was a demonstration against a BP-sponsored exhibition of Assyrian artefacts. The complaint was that whilst BP was posing as the great respecter of other countries' treasures, in modern day Iraq (formerly known as Assyria) it had been very keen to help itself to its oil reserves after the Gulf War. Helen Glynn, a spokesperson for the 'BP or not BP’, who organised the protest, argued that BP wants to be seen "as a good corporate citizen, when it is one of the most destructive companies in the world".

Colonisation does not always come at the end of gun, a jet fighter, or a drone. The spirit of the East India Company lives on in these huge multinationals, helping themselves to as much as they can, from around the world.

Decolonisation has to be serious, not tokenistic, and thus it must include looking at who gives money and what they get in return, and what influence they have (see also The corruption of art and culture by corporate capital by Mike Quille). For in the quite brilliant words of Kassim:

I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain's national narrative as a pretty curiosity with no substance - or worse for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another 'great' British accomplishment: the railways, two world wars, the world cup, and decolonisation.

 sponsor 3

The stunning courtyard, with banners proclaiming the latest exhibition - sponsored by Mitsubishi

This comes at a cost though. Governments see museums, galleries and culture generally as an easy target for cost-cutting. Museums have thus sought alternative streams of revenue for a reason. I doubt very much that the BM's link up with BP is because they fancy a freebie trip to an oil rig. It is the cold cash they bring. So many cultural critics, including the journalist Mark Lawson, have been critical of such protests, saying that in the name of some misplaced virtue, they simply reduce funding. He dismisses such proponents as being the 'New Puritans'. Resisting the response that Puritans helped get Charles I's head cut off, so they can’t have been all bad, there is a more concrete, and less flippant argument.

For socialists it is simple – give more in state funding. Then the counter-argument appears – from where will that money come from? If I look at the pretty pie chart on my annual tax summary, which tells me how my tax and NICs have been spent, what would be cut to pay for this increase? More to culture, but less to welfare or health or education? Interestingly, defence is never offered as an alternative. But the children in my class could answer that – you can always increase the whole which a pie chart represents. In this case, by increasing taxes. One is reminded of the quote of Clement Atlee from 1922:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

It does not have to be the way it is now. Society changes, has often changed, and can change again. This includes how museums are run and how the world’s history and culture is cared for. Who says important artefacts must be bought and sold? Why should some billionaire own something that rightly belongs to all of us?

Public ownership and democratic control

The answer surely lies in extending public ownership and democratic control of all our important historical artefacts. Remove the expensive market for our shared history. To a limited extent, museums already share and cooperate on an international basis, so why not extend that? Return what is not theirs to where it belongs, and that will foster a greater relationship between sister museums.

Some of this can be done in the here and now – to think otherwise is pessimism of curatorship. But to truly take culture back into public ownership, a whole new world needs to be created. In a Radio 4 Point of View recently, there was an interesting and thoughtful piece by Sarah Dunant on the issue. However, she concluded by saying that whilst art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was brilliant in its unsullied purity, we would just have to accept that we mortals below live in a mucky, corrupt world, and always would. Personally, I disagree – we socialists aim higher, want to transform our world, and cleanse it of the filth of ages.

And so back to my school trip. I want them to enjoy visiting museums – to wonder at the truly multicultural, diverse world we live in, and to develop respect and empathy with people from the past and the present. That cannot be done on one visit, even with a lunch and a few pencils purchased. But neither can it be done by visiting museums soaked in attitudes of control, dominance and superiority.

Wearing Civil Rights militancy on record sleeves
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 10:53

Wearing Civil Rights militancy on record sleeves

Published in Music

To mark the anniversary of the birthday of Rosa Parks, Phil Brett examines the impact of Civil Rights militancy on the sleeves of soul and funk albums.

In Wearing Their Politics on Their Sleeves we looked at how the growing Civil Rights Movement in the USA had influenced the design of jazz album sleeves, here we shall do likewise for their nephews and nieces - soul and funk albums.

PB A supremes                                 

Perhaps surprisingly, soul music took a while to reflect the social upheavals occurring in America. Berry Gordy's Motown Records strictly avoided politics, focusing on the traditional staple of love and romance. Their record sleeves, like their rock 'n' roll siblings, would be in the main, brightly covered affairs with the artist central to the design, usually smiling, with arms outstretched. But their wider impact should not be underestimated. The Civil Rights Movement had opened up a space for black music to gain a larger audience, but the musicians themselves, even with such successful labels as Motown or Stax, still faced a segregated world, just like the black members of their audiences. They might share desks at the Stax Records HQ in Memphis, but they couldn't share lunch counters outside. One should remember that it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court stopped laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the USA.

Groups such as Diana Ross and the Supremes were not political in the implicit sense, but often the context of culture is important. Where Did Our Love Go reached number 1 in 1964 (following Motown's first top spot - Mary Wells' My Guy). This, in a country where in some states you would go to prison for 12 months, if your love led to marriage, and you were black and he was white. Motown was young black America asserting itself. Reaching number one, crossing racial  lines, it was - whatever Gordy might want - a cultural act of assertion and subversion, to a bloody great tune.

On the album sleeve, the three women have the style, sophistication and class Motown strived for. To America, in 1964, rife with racism, with a good percentage of white Americans seeing black people as little more than savages, this sent a powerful message.


The struggle impacted across numerous different cultural lines. In less than a decade, politics were implicitly finding themselves into the music. The seminal albums of What's Going On (1971) by Marvin Gaye and Innervisions (1973) by Stevie Wonder set the standard. The American dream was becoming recognised as a nightmare for many.

PB B flag      PB C curtis m

There's a Riot Goin' On (1971) by Sly and Family Stone and Back to the World (1973) by Curtis Mayfield

Both the albums pictured above use the Stars and Stripes to question what exactly there is to be patriotic about. Indeed, is it possible to be highly critical of one's country and still be patriotic? The Sly album is only the flag, but the blue is now black and the stars are suns. There was no mention of either the title or the band (although the label insisted on a sticker). If John Berg's sleeve design is rather opaque, then Mayfield's is a little more obvious, with images of children and hustlers, jet bombers and the White House. Jerry Wollkowitz, who made the montage, is asking us what kind of world is the Vietnam veteran in the title track returning to?

PB D Bar keys                                   

Montage has often been used to make social comment. The Bar-Keys Do You See What I See? (1972) used images from United States culture, making it look like a grotesque circus. And in doing so, like the Curtis Mayfield album, matched the lyrics of its title track. From the early days of merely plonking the singer on the cover, artists were now seeking to reflect an image or a message. The sleeve had become more than something to keep the record safe and clean - it could also convey ideas.                             

 PB E Outlaw                                 

Some weren't that subtle. Gene McDaniels had been a crooner in the early sixties, but after the assassination of Martin Luther King exiled himself to Denmark for a year. Mass action can change millions of people's ideas and McDaniels is but one example. He came back, wanting to be known as Eugene McDaniels. A change of name brought a whole change of lyrics, including writing Compared to What (the live recording of which, by Les McCann and Eddie Harris is possibly one of the greatest ever songs recorded). His first album on his return was Outlaw (1970) with the cover screaming urban guerrilla, a counter-culture at war with the establishment.

PB F Madhouse

The sleeve of Serve 'em (1972) by Madhouse also pulls no punches, with its satirical cartoon clearly showing the huge and mutual mistrust between President Nixon and the black community.

  PB H the quays         PB G philadelphia                     

The wind of change even reached the more polished Philly sound, shown by these two 1973 albums show graphically. Both were made under the art direction of Ed Lee. The O'Jays album has a painting of a slave ship, illustrating the title track. To quote the Greatest Covers of All Time: "It was enough to make even the most myopic of white music fans take note that something was changing". This was released six years before the publication of Alex Haley's Roots. Not that the artist, James Barkley, was famed as a militant, he was better known as a children's book illustrator.

Bart Forbes, the artist for the MFSB album, was also not known for being a leading light in the counter-culture. His art was usually not so much strident graphics as a popular illustrator for Sports Illustrated, and was more used to drawing baseball stars than this kind of nightmarish drawing, including demonstrators, swastikas, skeletal soldiers, an atomic bomb cloud and the Klu Klux Klan. Interestingly, both artists had also designed U.S postage stamps! If militancy was affecting such previously soul pop groups such as the O'Jays and MFSB, not to mention illustrators such as Forbes and Barkley, then the mainstream had certainly shifted leftwards.

    PB I Fred Wesley                          

The heavyweight cardboard sleeve of this James Brown spin-off band also depicts the negative history of the African American experience, tracing the relatively recent barbarity of slavery and its continuing impact on black lives. Both the title, Damn Right I am Somebody (1973) and the music demanded change. On the back it says, "Think that you are somebody, and you'll be somebody. Positive Thinking. Positive Thinking. Positive Thinking".

 PB J Funkadelic                                

Positivity jumps out of you from Funkadelic's Uncle Jam Wants You (1979). Here the message remains serious but has a humorous twist, with George Clinton adopting a pose made famous by Black Panther Huey Newton in his iconic 1967 photograph. Referencing Black Power, still something feared by the white establishment in 1979, but doing so in platform white boots! Clinton's various projects (Funkadelic and Parliament for example) were full of glitter and showmanship, but with glorious funk, and very often with serious themes. Rather like Sun Ra in the jazz world, it seemed convenient to escape the world in order to comment on it. Diem M. Jones, who took this photograph, was also the designer who worked with Clinton and was integral to the music, putting Clinton's ideas into visual reality.  

 PB K Isaac Hayes                             

Here's another example of the singer adopting a powerful leader pose. Moses had always been an important figure in the Black American struggle, with his connotations of leading a people from captivity into freedom. The Isaac Hayes album Black Moses (1971) had a gatefold sleeve featuring the singer, full length, arms spread.

PB L The impressions                                                

The photographer used for Black Moses was Joel Brodsky, someone with an impressive pedigree of covers including Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and the Doors' debut album. He was also responsible for the Impressions' Finally Got Myself Together (1973) album showing the band out on the streets. Racism in the USA went far beyond segregation in the South. The brutal fact was that in the richest country in the world, there were urban ghettos of severe poverty throughout the country. Soul and funk musicians began to use ghetto imagery to make the point that even with the removal of segregation laws, black people still suffered chronic discrimination - something we see today with hip-hop and rap music.

PB M the fatback band                                     

On the cover of Keep on Steppin' (1973) by the Fatback Band there is a young girl dancing in front of a wall which has the band name and album title written in graffiti. It is simple but effective, and in the music writer Lloyd Bradley's view is "Probably the greatest album cover ever..... this typifies a trend in 1970s funk, whereby the sleeve represents the music rather than the band." 

PB N a taste of honey                                            

Sadly, women on many soul and funk albums, as with rock albums, have often featured on album covers merely as semi-pornography. The 1978 self-titled Taste of Honey debut is rather different. On the cover are bassist Janice Marie Johnson and guitarist Carlita Dorhan, with their instruments. This was at the time when punk and post-punk female musicians were trying to kick down the doors of male dominated rock (see No-one's Little Girl). Johnson and Dorhan, may be wearing elegant dresses rather than leather jackets and torn jeans, but there is no doubt from their look and camera angle that they are no mere adornments. These are two black female musicians asserting their confidence in both their musical ability and who they are. By the late seventies militant funk was being replaced by disco, but the struggle had had a widespread affect. The emphasis might be on dance, but this album cover also radiates pride.

Waves of political struggle are like tsunamis against the ruling class and their prevailing ideas, and they also send ripples also across the world of popular culture. Anti-Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights movement and the women's movements shook the American establishment. It also  helped create not only great music, but alongside it, marvellously evocative album art.

PB Rosaparks

Rosa Parks, with Martin Luther King in the background

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy
Wednesday, 28 February 2018 11:57

'The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter': Dashiell Hammett vs. Joe McCarthy

Published in Fiction

Phil Brett tells the story of when Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joseph McCarthy.                              

Sixty five years ago, on March 26th 1953, Dashiell Hammett, the famous novelist who was responsible for popularising the hard-boiled private eye novel, faced Senator Joseph McCarthy. For a brief moment in the confrontation, there took place an exchange concerning the possibility of communism in the United States. What led to that frankly surreal moment shows both what the American state will do to protect its rule, and the power which it fears.

 PB 2 Maltese Falcon                      

By 1953, Hammett was internationally known for his novels such as The Maltese Falcon, which had set the template of the cynical hard-drinking detective (See Murder, Mavericks and Marxism for my socialist look at the growth of crime fiction). His writing inspired legions of others, including such luminaries as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Many of his stories had been made into Hollywood movies. The 1941 film of the Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, usually appears in best movie lists, and the book figures in literary equivalents. But it wasn't because McCarthy disliked film noir that Hammett was having to defend himself. To find the reason, we perhaps should travel back to the start of the twentieth century.

By then, the United States had grown to a position where it could rival Britain and Germany. Huge corporations were now creating huge wealth, but only for those at the top. With the ever greater demands of profit, came ever greater exploitation. Workers fought back and unionisation grew, but the American federation of trade unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was ill-equipped to lead it, being virtually all male, all white and all skilled. Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States writes that "Racism was practical for the AFL. The exclusion of women and foreigners was also practical." Theirs was a business unionism, set up to help big business whilst earning fantastic salaries for the officials; divide and rule worked for them. But not for the movement. Mass strikes, such as the 1907 general strike of over ten thousand black and white workers on the New Orleans levees, terrified the bosses. Socialists and anarchists found their ideas gaining an audience. A new union, The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies) was created to cross racial, gender and sectional lines. It grew massively. The ruling class responded as they always had, and would continue to do, by unleashing terrible violence. Strikers were regularly fired on, such as in 1916 Everett, Washington, when two hundred armed thugs opened fire, leaving five Wobblies dead. It was far from being a one off.

   PB 3 IWW                               

A year later, IWW organiser Frank Little, was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and hanged. Strong evidence suggests that the vigilantes were in fact members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A member of the Pinkertons at the time was one Samuel Dashiell Hammett. Lillian Hellman, playwright and writer, comrade and partner of his for thirty years, later claimed that Hammett himself had been personally approached to be part of the gang. Her claim has been questioned, but whatever the truth of it, there is no doubt that Little's murder appalled him, and as a Pinkerton he would have witnessed the strike-breaking, infiltration, blackmail and murder which, despite their name, was pretty much the main work of the agency. Seeing at first hand how the state would subcontract out terror made Hammett begin to question the values which he had been brought up with.

 PB 4 newspaper on IWW                                

By the twenties, the IWW had been destroyed, with many activists dead or in prison, and the Socialist Party was falling apart. In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had grown to 4.5 million. It looked as if the American ruling class had won, and reaction was on the march. Racism and terror had long been popular mechanisms of oppression, but now there was something new in their tool box of terror - anti-communism. The first Red Scare was launched as a reaction of to the 1917 Russian Revolution, with the state mobilising against the threat. The press joined in, howling against anyone who even vaguely threatened the 'American way of life'.  President Woodrow Wilson forced Congress to pass the 1918 Sedition Act, primarily aimed against anarchists. Similar to what we see today, with Donald Trump calling anyone he perceives to be an opponent a snow flake, back then, there was little concern to differentiate between communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals or merely decent human beings. They all were 'reds'.

However, the struggle continued, with mass strikes. Marcus Garvey's message of black pride reached large audiences and the NAACP bravely battled for justice. In 1919, the American Communist Party (CP) was formed. The 1930s depression saw times get even harder, with more workers growing disillusioned with capitalism. The CP had grown to 55,000 by the end of the decade.

Hammett might have left the Pinkertons, but he was using the experience of detection in his writing. His first story was published in the magazine The Smart Set in 1929. The first of his five novels was Red Harvest (1929), which was followed by The Dain Curse (1929), the Maltese Falcon (1930), The Glass Key (1931) and the Thin Man (1934). They brought fame and wealth. However, the effect wasn't to draw him towards capitalism, but quite the opposite.

The 1930s saw him involved in civil rights and anti-fascist activity, joining the American Labor Party and in 1937, the Communist Party. In the main, his support was financial, and lending his name to campaigns. Not that his politics can especially be seen in his writing - there is a constant theme of a corrupt society in them, with many of the cops on the take, but little more than that.

But neither the lack of overt literary socialism, nor the fact that he had served in both world wars, was going to save him from the watchful eye of the red scaremongers. Over time, legislation had been steadily passed against the left. In March 1947 president Truman signed Executive Order 9835 to check the "Americanism" of public employees. It was the legislation which the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) would use. Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, says, ""The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." And the crook was certainly cheap here, with Senator McCarthy achieving his moment in history, by conducting several HUAC investigations.

Again, as with today's resident of the White House and purveyor of gaudy Twitter patter, stars in the movie industry were useful targets (see also Peter Frost's article I am Spartacus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo). This was partly because there was anxiety that any liberalism in the arts might help raise awkward questions about society (see my If We Stop Fighting The World Will Die for an example of how political messages appear in the most mainstream of films). But it was also because the stars' fame could be used to spread the fear - if the state was willing and able to go for the great and good, then the local activist was an easy target. In wielding such power, the ruling class showed their fear, by trying to instil it in others.

    PB 5 HB and LB              

Some fought back, including in 1947, a high profile, (and in the history of lobbying, possibly the best-dressed ever) delegation, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In the same year, Hammett was elected the president of the Civil Rights Congress (CVC) whose role was to fund defences for those arrested for political offences.                                      

Four years later, he was brought before the United Sates attorney for the southern district of New York to disclose who had been aided. Hammett refused. As a result, he was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt. The magazine Hollywood Life caught the OTT hysteria, calling Hammett, "one of the most dangerous (if not THE) influential communists in America".

Then in 1953, he was dragged in front of the HUAC. This time it was to face the charge that 'pro-communist' books had made their way into overseas libraries run by the State Department. Three hundred copies of his books had been found on the shelves of seventy three of its libraries. Fearing that American capital would collapse from Sam Spade's sardonic wit, Dashiell Hammett faced Senator Joe McCarthy.

For most of the hearing, Hammett, like so many others who appeared before the HUAC, pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions in case they might incriminate him. There is a tradition of socialists using political trials as a platform to argue their cause. Why Hammett and others didn't do this is not clear. Perhaps, the reason is hinted at when one of the Committee questions him as to why he is appearing "before the bar of public opinion". He replies that it was not the 'bar of public opinion' which had sent him to prison for six months - the implication being that it was the state, doing so for political reasons. By the fifties, the left had suffered a series of defeats and confidence was low: taking the Fifth was seen as the only viable tactic. Certainly, Hammett didn't lack moral courage. He'd shown that in the 1947 trial and the fact that he had publicly supported campaigns associated with the CP throughout the Red Scare.

But then McCarthy asked, "Do you believe that the communist system is better than the system in use in this country?" Hammett didn't this time take the Fifth but instead answered, "Well, regardless of what I thought of communism in Russia today, it is doubtful if, you know, any one sort of thing - one is better for one country, and one is better for the other country."

McCarthy, then asked, "You seem to distinguish between Russian communism and American communism. While I cannot see any distinction, I will assume there is for the purpose of the questioning. Would you think that American communism would be a good system to adopt in this country?" Hammett took the Fifth, but then to perhaps McCarthy's surprise, he added that it was a question which could not be answered by a yes or no. McCarthy asked why. "You see," Hammett answered, "I don't understand. Theoretical communism is no form of government. You know, there is no government. And I actually don't know, and I couldn't without - even in the end, I doubt it if I can give a definite answer."

Sensing a chance to trap him, the senator asked if he favoured the adoption of communism in the United States. Hammett didn't take the Fifth but answered no. It wasn't the answer that McCarthy had expected. Hammett explained, "For one thing, it would seem to me impractical, if most people didn't want it."

Maybe McCarthy should have read some of the books he was so intent on banning. If he had, then he might have understood that to achieve communism, Marxists believe that a transitional socialist state is required, you did not jump straight to a communist state. So Hammett was, strictly speaking, not denying his politics. McCarthy just simply did not understand them. In any case, the agent of change was the mass of the working class. The masses in 1953 USA were not in a pre-revolutionary state, so Hammett was being practical. Hammett's testimony couldn't be said to have been a stirring defence of socialism, but he hadn't implicated anybody else, nor fundamentally denied his politics.

The session ended with McCarthy returning to the ostensible reason for his appearance, the stocking of 'communist literature' in state libraries. He asked the author, "If you were in charge of that programme to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 communist authors?" Hammett, replied with a putdown which Sam Spade would have been proud of, "If I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all."

Despite his careful replies, he had done enough to provoke further action against him. He was blacklisted and the FBI spent a lot of time and effort in trying to charge him for tax fraud. Perhaps nothing more was done because Hammett was a sick man, who would not publish anything major again. He become a virtual recluse, living with Hellman until his death in 1961. Even then, he had beaten McCarthy, outliving the senator by four years.

There is no doubt that the American ruling class faced a serious threat to its power in the first half of the twentieth century. It defended itself with brutal violence, intimidation and blacklisting - nothing less than state-sponsored terrorism. The left was smashed.  Sixty five years later, with Trump as president, it could be easy to think that McCarthy had won. However, within a decade, the sixties would see a re-emergence of radicalism, with women's, black, gay and anti-Vietnam movements changing American society forever. Even today, with the Uncut, Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns, not to mention campaigns against Trump, people still fight for radical ideas in the States. McCarthy would have been apoplectic at the sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans flocking to support Bernie Sanders, a politician proud to call himself a socialist.

The root of Senator Joe McCarthy's fear is still here. And let us also remember that McCarthy's name is now despised, synonymous with witch hunts, whilst Hammett is famous for the creation of a literary genre. Perhaps the words of Sam Spade, his most famous creation, also spoke for him: "I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble."

Hollywood Ten

Beyond the boundaries: A review of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale
Sunday, 29 October 2017 21:50

Beyond the boundaries: A review of the Diaspora Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale

Published in Visual Arts

Phil Brett takes us on a tour of an exhibition at the Venice Biennale which explores the challenges which emigrants and immigrants face.

Away from the main sites of this year's Venice Biennale Arte (See Dennis Broe for a review of the festival) is the Diaspora Pavilion. It’s housed in a former palace, built on the proceeds of mercantile trade and theft – often two words for the same activity, of course. Cornered by two canals, and dripping faded grandeur, the building is an appropriate setting for the exhibition by 19 artists exploring elements of the diasphoric experience. Independent of the concept of national pavilions in the main festival, these are experiences of people far from their original homelands, of narratives transcending national boundaries.

This is the first time there has been a Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The main driving idea behind it is the gross under-representation of black and minority artists (BME) – even the lack of referencing the lives of BME people, in the world of art. (For a brief look at the conservatism of this art world, see my  Art for, and by the Many, not the Few).

In the wider world, the whole question of how people fit in, where they can live and where they're from, has become a toxic political issue.  Electoral successes by right wing (and shamefully, many social democratic) parties have been built on the back of scapegoating immigrants for the effect of austerity. With sick irony, it has transcended the national boundaries, with anti-immigration policies crossing the national boundaries which the racists want to strengthen.


 Tragically, another reason for the pavilion's topicality is the death of Khadija Saye, the British Gambian artist who was killed in the Grenfell fire, whose work features in the exhibition. Her wet tin-plate pictures reference the rituals we use to cope with trauma.

Her pictures are as much about the process of production, as the final piece of art. Titled, "Dwelling: in this space we breathe", they have taken on a further powerful message, that the space, that she and other working class (and mainly BME)  people lived, lacked even the basic human right of safety - of adequate fire safety procedures. In 2017, the poor, the black and minority ethnic, indeed, anyone seen by the ruling class definition as being of 'us' are shunted out of sight.

PB3.jpg PB4

Being written out of history is also the theme of Barbara Walker's large in situ drawings of black soldiers in World War I. Appearing to be not finished, their bodies seem to fade into the white plaster. Like the role of BME troops in both world wars, they have been whitewashed out of existence.


Forming the bedrock of the exhibition, arguably of the very concept of Diaspora, is transportation, sometimes voluntarily, but often forced, either by economic necessity or to escape war and famine. Or as millions suffered, by forced transportation - slavery (it has been estimated that 1.5 million slaves died in the passage). The legacy of which still affects the world with its sickness. Karl Marx, in Capital, and later Eric Williams, in his classic, Capitalism and Slavery, argued that the barbaric trade was not only responsible for the dominance of the British Empire but the birth of racism to justify it.

On the ground floor of the pavilion hang ships by Hew Locke. On and surrounding the ships are cut-outs of Portuguese mercenaries made by 16th century Benin sculptors. Hanging by them are figures of contemporary soldiers, and I was reminded that just as Venice gained its power by control of the Mediterranean, so today the EU patrol the same sea, blocking immigrants who are risking their lives for relative safety. The ships may face a gold curtain but they are flanked by armed force.


Above this, on the first floor, stand large figures by Sokari Douglas Camp CBE, showing the stages of slavery in Sierra Leone, from indigenous, to slave, to post-liberation era figures. They stand proud, dominating the floor, indeed, almost the whole exhibition. Nigerian born, but living and working in the Elephant & Castle, Camp is one of the better known artists being shown, with her large metal sculptures appearing in such diverse places as St Paul’s and the American Museum of Natural History. I will happily say that I am a fan.


This exhibition though, is not solely about the crimes committed against people of colour but also of their resistance. Sometimes it is by arms, as shown by Kimathi Donkor's painting of Toussaint L'Ouverture leading the slave rebellion for Haiti's independence. Its structure echoes Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps, which heralded the demise of the Venetian republic. Donkor, known for his dramatic figurative art of key moments of black history, whether the subject is the murder of Stephen Lawrence or Nanny of the Maroons leading slave rebellions in Jamaica, has a direct style, which never tries to over-complicate.


There is also the theme of immigrants’ struggles to get their ideas, knowledge and skills accepted into western society, whilst retaining their identity. Yinka Shonibare MBE's wonderful installation of a library, looking so traditionally English, with its wooden bookshelves, has books by first and second generation immigrants, while others are by people who have opposed immigration. All are covered in traditional African designs. Whether the authors in the library acknowledge it or not, no society is pure, comprising a mix of cultures - complementing, intertwining and sometimes conflicting.

Looking at it, perhaps the Chinua Achebe quote is apt, "People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories". Shonibare's work explores the concept of identity and the interrelationship of the histories of Africa and Europe. His most public work in doing this was the large Nelson's Ship in a Bottle on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. This installation, I think is just as successful, and like the whole pavilion makes me hope that the exhibition will travel to the UK so people who don't have the funds to visit Venice can enjoy it.


It has never been easy for immigrants to survive. The major struggle has been that of survival. Whether from the Diaspora in renaissance Venice, the eighteenth century Britain or today's Europe. Many were, and are, pushed to the margins of society, as seen in the photographs of street sellers of African descent, selling handbags to tourists on the Venetian sea front, by Dave Lewis.


People might be economically marginalised, but that doesn't mean that their beliefs and traditions are. Directly or indirectly, they're alive in their hearts and minds. A part of the cultural mix which creates us. Such is an element of Michael Forbes' installations where African iconography mix with western figures. Cultural and national references sit by each other, crossing national boundaries, as does the Diaspora. Sometimes they combine to create new beliefs or narratives, at other times they exist in parallel. The tension of different cultural heritages runs through this pavilion. As Salman Rushdie said, "Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools".


But it would be wrong to think of the exhibition as worthy and heavy. Yes, it is thought provoking, powerful at times, with far more than has been mentioned here including some great video and audio art, but it is also vibrant and playful. Nicola Green's Bate Bola prints mix Rio's Carnival, Venice's mask ball and English Tudor clowns do have something to say about the cross pollination of cultures, but it also brought a broad smile to my face.

Leaving the pavilion, heading back into the labyrinth of Venice's alleyways, hoping not to get too lost (again), I felt that the exhibition had educated, intrigued, moved – and yes, entertained me.


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.”
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