Bits and Pieces – June 2012

Shostakovich 10

A wonderful performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony by the CBSO under the mesmerising Andris Nelsons. Shostakovich is a site of ideological battle, his music fiercely contested and debated, with every sort of hidden meaning detected which might make it acceptable to anti-communist listeners.

At the root of this is a problem that conventional critics have. How can one explain away the fact that music of such brilliance, such emotional power, is the product of an atheist and communist? To manage this feat it becomes necessary to say that Shostakovich was not really either of those things and that his music is in fact a protest against them. Lying behind this is the further fact – incredible though it may seem to those of us who imbibed a Trotskyite perspective at a young age (let alone those of us with anarchist deviations!) – that it is incomprehensible to many people that one can be a deeply committed anti-Stalinist and yet still a communist and atheist, still a believer in the aspirations of 1917. However – and I speak as a complete musical ignoramus – once those things are accepted (which of course they are no problem for me to accept!), his music makes perfect sense. Of course he satirises Stalin as he does in the 2nd movement here (while also making the power of his appeal tangible). Of course there are all sorts of ‘deliberate irrationalities and oddities’ (to quote the notes from the programme for this concert) – does the writer think that because one is an atheist and a socialist life is straightforward? The history of 20thC Russia is one of extraordinary tragedy. The defeat of idealism, the deaths of millions, war, brutality, oppression; in the face of this to preserve one’s individuality, to preserve a spark of hope in humanity, is a massive feat – but Shostakovich’s music does this. It is what gives it its extraordinary emotional power. ‘Irrationalities and oddities’ are the stuff of humanity – that Shostakovich expresses them is at the heart of his genius.

Duh! (or ‘I Told You This Would Happen’)

Another wonderful T-shirt I have bought from Red Molotov has a picture of Marx with the slogan ‘I Told You This Would Happen’. I receive (free!) every so often a copy of the alumni magazine of my Cambridge college. My usual interest is in seeing how it demonstrates the ways in which the formation of the British ruling class works; the number of senior positions in politics, business, law, the armed services etc. which various alumni have filled. But in the latest issue there was an article which caught my eye. It was entitled ‘The Human Cost of Economic Policy’ and presents as a great revelation the fact that following the collapse of State Capitalism in the former USSR and in the wake of the wholesale privatisations which followed there was an appalling medical catastrophe.

Between 1990 and 1995, an estimated 7 million premature deaths occurred in the countries that emerged from the USSR, rivalling the number of deaths attributed to Stalin’s politically induced famine in 1932-1933. Mortality rates rose by 12.8% in men and life expectancy fell to 64 years in 1994, the lowest level in the post-war period.

The research teams responsible for this study have undertaken other studies ‘that trace links between economic programmes and health’ including the effect of the Greek crisis – ‘On the basis of their studies, they argue that political and economic policies and processes can affect the lives of millions’. Ummm – well as any socialist or Marxist would comment ‘You think that’s news?’. Or, indeed, Duh!

Lattimore’s Odyssey

It is a good number of years since I last read Homer and that was The Iliad in Pope’s translation, which I still regard as a monument in terms of working both as an original poem and as a masterpiece of English verse. I decided that it was time to return to The Odyssey and used Lattimore’s translation which I have not read before. Heretical though it may be I have to admit that I got somewhat bored. This is not to deny the immense merits of the translation, which has a great deal of force and beauty. No it is the story itself. In part this is because one tends to misremember; Ulysses’s travels, which so dominate the imagination (Circe, the descent to hell, Scylla and Charybdis, the sirens, the cyclops etc.) are not so dominant in terms of the space allocated in the saga. Events which take place after his return to Ithaca occupy what sometimes appears to be an almost interminable time. Ulysses invented narratives become almost tedious; what is meant to be conveyed by this? That he was a compulsive liar? Lattimore argues in his Introduction that he sees The Odyssey as the work of a younger poet (the arguments about who Homer was or if he existed are endless and I have no intention of entering an area about which my knowledge is miniscule), where The Iliad is the flowering of his mature genius. I hope this is so. I intend to go and read the latter in Fagles’ translation next to see whether it is with Homer or his lesser poem that I felt a nagging dissatisfaction.

Page Eight

Page Eight is a film written and directed by David Hare starring Bill Nighy and an especially stellar supporting cast. It is wonderful to look at, beautifully acted and very moving. It catches you up, involves and transports. It is only later, when one starts to analyse it, that some doubts and problems emerge.

The story is that of a senior MI5 officer (Nighy) whose boss (the brilliant Michael Gambon) uncovers the fact that the Prime Minister has been running his own security operation, an operation which colludes in American torture of terrorist suspects, not passing on the information gained even though this might save British lives. Gambon dies and Nighy has to decide whether to take the honourable course and publicise the report or to collude in its suppression – the former course will end his career and maybe send him to jail, the latter will be handsomely rewarded. The basic framework of the story is therefore that of a spy thriller – Le Carre country. As with Le Carre the film is very much more than that; here the film centres on Nighy’s relationships with a wide range of women, including his daughter, his ex-wife, the Home Secretary, ex-lovers, an MI5 colleague and a neighbour who provides the love interest. All of the women are strong and none is a stereotype (well the ambitious Home Secretary approaches that but I suspect this is unavoidable); Hare is a brilliant creator of strong, complex women (think Plenty).

Now all the parts of the film which centre on Nighy’s relationships and on his simultaneous alienation from his job and world, yet increasing commitment to an ethical course of action, work extremely well. These are Hare’s strengths; that sense of melancholy, of becoming increasingly out of touch with one’s surroundings. It is with the spy thriller elements that problems arise. The thriller/mystery elements are competent above though hardly of a Bourne Trilogy standard. It is the politics which are a problem. At the heart of these is Nighy’s growing realisation of the fact that he is regarded as an anachronism in the world of espionage because of his ethical scruples; that an honourable MI5 has been betrayed by a dishonest and unscrupulous Prime Minister (played by Ralph Fiennes so the comparison will not be too direct, this is nonetheless very obviously Blair; Hare even quotes the cliche when Nighy comments on him that ‘I think he believes what he says’ – this is sometimes said in exculpation of Blair and is something I cannot comprehend. Why is it better to be a sincere war-monger than a devious one? All Kantian rubbish.. Makes not a whit of difference to the Iraqi being bombed whether the person who ordered the bombing ‘sincerely’ believed he was right or not). The underlying assumption here is that of an honourable MI5. Here Gambon/Nighy operate as heirs and successors of Smiley. But at a much more simplistic level. Gambon is committed to Englishness – he goes bell-ringing and lives in the country. At his funeral, in a typical rural church, the first hymn (chosen by Nighy) is ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’. Page Eight poses the notion of an opposition between a decent, pure patriotism, and a corrupt, undemocratic, personal security service run by a Prime Minister totally in hock to the Americans.

Bill Nighy and the Great Gambon

The problem with this is very obvious. MI5 has always been a particularly ruthless and oppressive part of the state apparatus, its very purpose being to suppress and destroy internal opposition to the ruling class (for American readers the equivalent of MI5 is the FBI – and one has to admit that we have got off lightly in comparison! no Hoover here; this does not undermine the analysis). It has indulged in dirty tricks and shady practices throughout its history. Its very secrecy makes it profoundly undemocratic. To suggest that one could be a part of this apparatus yet retain a developed ethical code is an absurdity. In a television series like Spooks we treat this assumption as an absurdity because the programme is obviously fantasy. In a serious drama like Page Eight the fallacy of the premise is much more disabling and undermining.

To conclude then, Page Eight is a first-rate film, with many pleasures both visual and auditory. It is superbly acted and very well-directed. But its premise has a fatal flaw.

2 thoughts on “Bits and Pieces – June 2012

  1. ellenandjim

    I should try Page Eight again. I was irritated by it – LeCarre’s nostalgia is limited and he is far more penetrating. He did go to these people’s schools.

    I am struck how people cannot just love music but must first have a composer whose life fits their ideas of acceptably: identity politics. I begin to wonder if they actually do listen to the music. I see the same in women’s poetry. Dr Zhivago is a vexed text because it doesn’t fit preconceptions.

    I’ve read Lattimore, Nick! that’s the one I was assigned in college A savage primitive kind of verse. I remember how brutal was the poem.

    Glad to have read this this morning, Nick,

  2. Chris Hay

    I just wonder if ‘Page Eight’ attempted to address the inherent tension between maintaining personal ethics whilst undertaking the requirements of the role by indicating that it was at great personal cost – internal conflict, isolation, apparent melancholia, dysfunctional relationships with women and his female child etc.

    Thanks for the interesting analysis.


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