Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tale of a haunting: Jeff Sparrow’s search for Paul Robeson


As is the case with so many public figures, the internet offers no shortage of information on the life of Paul Robeson. Exhaustive and painstakingly annotated biographical wikis, in-depth artistic and political examinations and then – via YouTube and Google’s peculiar ability to skirt modern copyright law – tens of hours of primary and secondary material: not just in the form of samples of the man’s art, or full-length documentaries on his life, but also of his public interventions, including his testimony of May 1948 in front of the US Senate against the passing of the anti-communist Mundt-Nixon Bill, and – even more notably – the audio of his June 1956 hearing in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. All of these documents are remarkable and interesting, just as their availability to anyone with a basic internet connection is an undoubted public good. Yet relevance and meaning don’t arise out of a mass of records. They require a thread, a purpose and a direction. A way to orient ourselves out of the maze that is the story of anyone’s life – let alone a life as large as Paul Robeson’s.


Jeff Sparrow’s No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson is an attempt to offer one such thread, out of the many possible ones. To the extent that it is a biography, it proceeds along a double, parallel track, recounting Robeson’s life at the same time as Sparrow’s own encounters with people who either remembered him or – more frequently – helped the author understand the historical and social circumstances in which he lived. While Sparrow’s admiration for his subject is palpable (and amply justified), the book is never triumphalist or hagiographic – or, worse still, nostalgic – nor are the central claims concerning the relevance of Robeson’s political thought uncomplicated. The book reads rather like the story of a haunting. What is it that moved a white Australian writer to travel the world in search of the ghost of a black American artist? And what did he learn?

Any mention of Paul Robeson, including in a book review, must be dutifully accompanied by a potted list of his achievements: that he was a star athlete in college football and a champion orator; that he graduated with a law degree from Columbia only to become one of the most popular recording artists of his generation, then a film and theatre actor whose credits include revolutionising the role of Shakespeare’s Othello; that he was a polyglot and a self-taught scholar of folk music among other subjects; that he was a champion of civil rights, of socialism, of the struggle against international fascism. That he achieved all of this in spite of being born in dire poverty, and of the horrific levels of racial discrimination that accompanied him even at the height of his fame; and finally that these odds were made even more insurmountable by the political persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era, culminating in calls for his internment, a de facto ban on his ability to perform and earn a living, and the refusal by authorities to issue him with a passport, making him a prisoner of his own country for nearly a decade.

This is Sparrow’s subject: larger than life, barely contained by history. The events that propel him back into our field of vision have to do most immediately with the rise of Trump and a new wave of explicitly racist and supremacist political projects (besides those that never went away), which in turn pose a renewed set of questions on the availability of radical alternatives, and on the political role of art and artists. The echoes are eerie, such as when Robeson was asked to account for his political sympathies in front of Francis H. Walter – the Democratic congressman who drafted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowing the US to ban immigrants on the grounds of their political affiliation, to the eventual inclusion of many prominent intellectuals. On this occasion, Robeson refused on principle to deny belonging to the Communist Party, of which he wasn’t in fact a member, and delivered a thunderous response to the question of why he would not seek asylum in the Soviet Union, since he thought so very highly of it:
Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?
As this episode exemplifies, Robeson’s story is one of unwavering commitment, a taking of sides that led him to lose his freedom, his fortune and very nearly his life. Yet its lessons aren’t completely straightforward, as the strategic decision by many socialists not to disavow Stalinism – argues Sparrow – produced precisely the outcome that Robeson had sought to prevent: the ‘erosion of the American Left’s moral authority and influence’. This arc mirrors the decline in Robeson’s health – both mental and physical – which resulted in his ultimate withdrawal from public life after one final period abroad, including a tour to Australia and New Zealand; as well as the transition into a new phase in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, to which Robeson was more a witness than a protagonist. But this ending, while sad, was by no means a defeat.

No Way But This grapples with Robeson’s contradictions as well as with the enduring, fierce urgency of his message: that call he made time and again for working people of all races to be allowed to live an ‘abundant and dignified life’. The solidarity that Robeson found outside of the United States – among the miners of Wales and Scotland, or the Republican fighters of Spain, and everywhere he travelled thereafter – forged his mature political consciousness, expanding the worldview of that ‘son of a slave’ born during the Jim Crow era to encompass a vision of global emancipation. Told sensitively and often movingly by a writer awake to the nuances of the political and social contexts in which Robeson moved, it is a story that reverberates today, full of tragedy but also exhilaration and promise. It is the story we need to hear.


This review was first published at Overland.

No way but this: in search of Paul Robeson is published through Scribe Publishing.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

About Firemen


I am a man of simple pleasures. And one of these pleasures is to receive emails from AbeBooks informing me that somewhere in the world they have found a book I have been looking for.


I have a few pending requests. I like that the website keeps track of how long I (or rather, they) have been looking for each book. This one was nearly six years coming. I can now ‘delete my want’.


About Firemen is a little book about, well, firemen. Gendered profession as there ever was one, but at the time when the book was written – the mid 1930s – it was literally true. D. Richardson (I have never been able to establish what the D stands for) wrote about them in the same way they wrote about dustmen, postmen and policemen, as part of the Introduction to Citizenship series overseen by the Froebel Education Institute and published by Ginn and Company Ltd, 7 Queen Square, London. Richardson wrote the quartet of books in the belief that
children, even quite young children, can and should make contact with some of the essential social services in the community.
The books were written with the school in mind, and link to one of the my favourite recurring topics: the historical representation of work, especially for pedagogical purposes. However, Richardson’s choice of four at the time all-male professions suggests that for them talking about labour ultimately meant upholding a specific ideal of society: namely, one that is orderly (policemen), clean (dustmen), connected (postmen), and safe (firemen). These for the author are the underpinnings not just of any society, but more specifically of democratic ones, in those days of ‘social, political and international unrest’.

Consider About Firemen, then, like the other little books in the series, a treatise on life during a sort of permanent peacetime home front, while fascism raged abroad.


Richardson’s firemen are well-trained, diligent, brave and strong. They wait at the station for the next alarm, either maintaining their equipment or resting or sleeping in their bunks, unless they are first in line to respond to a call. Outside the station is London, with its networks of fire alarms and hydrants, and its symbols for the initiated.


Enamelled tags attached to buildings whether a hydrant (H) or double hydrant (HD) is situated directly underneath (diamond-shaped tag) or on the opposite side of the road (oval shaped-tag), while special boxes allow people to send an alarm signal to the station or firemen to communicate that the situation is under control and no more appliances are needed at the scene.


Other ways to contact the service include special button in police boxes, or personal communication devices that have started to appear in the wealthiest homes.


Back at central station, the commanders track in real time the deployment of appliances on a map of the city.


While other officers operate the switchboard and map out the calls.


Overseen by a military chain of command, this is a model of the city as an organism, a body to be disciplined and protected. The job of the fireman, which in reality must require a great deal of resourcefulness and creativity, is reduced therefore to a series of component functions, or conditioned, automatic responses, to be carried out with efficiency and precision. A strange lesson to teach in the pursuit of civics education, perhaps, if the ulterior motive is say things about the nature of citizenship in a free society.


I enjoy these books. They have a quaintness about it, such as when they admonish against leaving candles on the Christmas tree unattended. I’m old enough to remember Christmas decorations requiring actual flames.


I enjoy finding out in the 1930s in Britain fire brigade call-outs were free unless it was for a flue fire, in which case you were regarded as being neglectful and had to pay.


I enjoy reading about the transition from the classic brass helmets – which as well as being very heavy had become an electrocution hazard since the introduction of electricity to the modern home – to new ones made of cork and rubber.


But mostly I like them for these books for the usual reason: that fewer attempts are made nowadays to teach people about work, or about how things are made and by whom, and it’s a topic I’ll never cease to find interesting, just as I did when I was the age of D. Richardson’s intended reader.

Now, I’m still missing About Policemen and affiliated second-hand booksellers are aware but still, if you should come across it please let me know.



D. Richardson. About Firemen. London: Ginn and Company, 193?


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The dementia village


When my grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease, she started to get me confused with her son, who had moved to Brazil at what was then my age. As a result of this, and of the feelings of guilt she still harboured towards him, seeing me had the effect of making her anxious. It was only through conversation that she became calmer to the point where we could enjoy each other’s company.

Eventually I learned that the best course of action was not to correct her misapprehension, but rather to speak with my own voice and to tell her ordinary things about my life. I neither indulged nor rebelled against her fantasies. I let her talk about my grandfather as if he were still alive, and brought the conversation back to shared memories or concrete topics she could still grasp and express an opinion about. The success of this strategy was limited, but one day our conversation went so well I forgot about her illness, or even to keep an eye on the time. The visit ended with my having to literally run across the village to the railway station in order to catch the last train back to the city.


My grandmother’s daily self-care needs were very high, and it never occurred to us at the time that her rigidly segregated, hospital-like rest home might not be the best place for her to wait safely, and in relative comfort, for the end. In those same years, a group of Dutch caregivers began designing Hogeweyk, a village conceived to allow dementia sufferers to maintain a measure of autonomy and control over their environment. Structured around a series of template ‘lifestyles’ – ‘upper-class, homey, Christian, artisan, Indonesian and cultural’ – the group homes at Hogeweyk don’t confront residents with constant, jarring reminders of their illness, but rather encourage social interaction and participation. Other facilities that have been built since then, such as the Fartown village at Huddersfield in the UK, are modelled around 1950s housing and communal spaces, with meticulous attention to period detail.

What in other contexts may strike us as superficial, fashion-driven nostalgia, here serves the pragmatic purpose of keeping residents anchored to their psychological present – that is, to the time to which what is left of their memory most frequently returns. Residents of these facilities can go shopping (using fake money) in stores lined with generic, familiar products. They can walk the streets of the small grid-like quarters in safety, under the watchful eyes of cameras and plain-clothes nursing and security staff. At the Benrath Senior Centre in Düsseldorf, they can even wait at the stop for a bus that will never come.

The concept is highly suggestive, and routinely evokes comparisons to The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol’s sardonically dystopian story of a man condemned to live his life on a television set. In this case, the pretence is humane, as it seeks to restore (as opposed to suppress) agency, but the broader cultural reverberations are hard to ignore. Increases in life expectancy have caused dementia to reach epidemic levels, and many – if not most – families in the West are set to be affected by it as populations continue to age. But its effects are markedly different: for the sufferers, it sometimes takes the form of a long, almost gentle goodbye, the gradual taking of leave from the experiences and the relationships of a lifetime; for their loved ones, it is both heartbreaking and a burden. The duty to care for someone who can no longer recognise us, and increasingly be recognised by us for the person we once knew, is a heavy one. It can also be terribly hard to let go, to accept that the objective facts of our lives cease to matter when measured against the pain and disorientation that reminding can cause. For the families, then, it becomes an exercise in wilful amnesia: we learn to allow our elders to forget.

At the same time as individual lives are getting longer, exposing more people to dementia, our collective life as a species is getting shorter. It is the same progress that presides over both the medical advances and the frantic exploitation of the planet’s resources for present-day use, which threatens to erase the future altogether. Soon there may no longer be a past for anyone to remember, and ‘dementia villages’ like Hogeweyk will become indistinguishable from every other built environment. For now, however, their import is much more symbolic. Like my conversations with my grandmother, these special facilities make concessions to forgetting that our culture is generally unwilling to make so that what is left of experience can be salvaged and shared. They show us that memory can be a burden, too, and how to alleviate it.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How to live 349 years longer


Run 5 minutes a day: 5 years.
Read books: 23 months.
Exercise when you’re old: 5 years.
Play golf: 5 years.
Eat oily fish twice a day: 2 years.
Follow the Mediterranean Diet: 15 years.
Be right handed: 10 years.


Move from Zutphen to Crete: 6 years.
Develop resilience: 10 years.
Take this longevity pill for dogs: 4 years, equal to 28 human years.
Be a Tour de France cyclist: 6 years.
Pursue happiness: 7.2 years.
Pursue wealth: 15 years.
Have children: 1.5 years.
Have grandchildren, care for them: 5 years.
Cut down on calories: 18 years.
Win the Nobel Prize: 2 years.
Win an Oscar: 4 years.
Win an Olympic medal: 2.8 years.
Pray regularly: 7 years.
Run some more: 3 years.


Do this: 2 years.
Do these four things: 14 years.
Walk this way: 5 years.
Play this game: 10 years.
Move to a democratic country: 11 years.
Conquer stress: 10 years.
Be a well-educated person: 7 years.
Get castrated (if a man): 13.6 years.
Do housework (if a woman): 3 years.
Become a cloistered nun (also if a woman presumably): 9 years.
Do regular exercise: 4.5 years.
Garden: 14 years.
Get angry: 2 years.
Become an Adventist: 5 years.
Become a vegetarian: 9 years.


Go to university: 7 years.
Get more friends: 7 years.
Take at least 300 milligrams of vitamin C per day: 6 years.
Be a smoker, then quit when you’re middle aged: 10 years.
Be Italian or Spanish, rather than English: 2 years.
Think positive: 7 years.
Stop looking at your phone: 11 years.
Kiss your spouse in the morning: 5 years.
Use a standing desk: 2 years.
Drink a glass of wine after work: 5 years.
Achieve frequent orgasms: 2 years.
Eat nuts 5 days a week: 3 years.
Socialise with baboons: 2.5 years.
Floss daily: 6 years.

Bonus tip: since each hour spent running adds 7 hours to your life, achieve immortality by running for 3.4 hours a day. Or you could try volunteering, which reduces by 20% your chance of death (the standard human rate being 100%).


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