Only a pawn in their game

Medgar Evers. Legacy.com

In a recent tweet, pithy and to the point, Dr. Oni Blackstock reminded us that: “Intersectionality is not just the concept of intersecting identities. Intersectionality is specifically about the intersection of marginalized identities and how intersecting systems of oppression serve to further marginalize and disempower.”

I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that, except perhaps to say that marginalisation is more indiscriminate than we imagine, and sometimes mocks the categories and identities that we set up.

On the 12th of June 1963, WW2 veteran and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered outside his own home in Jackson, Mississippi. He was buried with full military honours in Arlington Cemetery, on the 19th of June. His murderer, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, evaded punishment until 1994, when he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 2001.

Bob Dylan commemorated the murder of Medgar Evers in his song ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’. In order to make it a piece of social commentary, however, he fictionalised and anonymised his murderer. He did so to remind us that systems of oppression do not simply exert oppression, they also contain it. The ‘poor white’ of Dylan’s ballad is at the bottom of the social heap, but his marginalisation within the system means that he can be easily recruited as a foot soldier in the exertion of that external oppression – the familiar concept of victim becoming victimiser.

Though the message of the song was specific to the era of Civil Rights protests, it has new resonances now. The concept amongst the resurgent nationalist and supremacist right, that they have been forgotten and pushed to the back of the queue, may be more tenuous than it was back in the days of “poverty shacks,” but the rhetoric of the powerful – the billionaire and Eton-bred politicians – has been tailored to incite them to push back at the advances that the likes of Medgar Evers died in the struggle for. This is something we need to keep in mind.

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J is for Jawlensky

Alexei von Jawlensky did a series of very similar ‘Abstract Head’ paintings, of which this is one. Like many early 20c European artists, Jawlensky was fascinated by face masks that came out of the cultures of Africa. Like many such artists, he probably misinterpreted them, failing to see their sophistication; but what that misinterpretation went on to produce was very bold and striking art in its own right. African culture had given something unexpected to European art.

In this painting, a series of simple lines and patches of colour suggest an impassive face, the eyes hidden by shade, the head possible topped by a hat or simple headdress, or perhaps just by a flick of hair. The colours in this painting are less garish than in some others in the series, and as Jawlensky believed that colour spoke directly to the viewer’s emotions, this may be why the face seems impassive to me. Other paintings in this series use different colours to different effect, in what is essentially the same composition.

[Note: The paintings in this series are all over the internet. It is hardly worth attempting to give a citation!]

One of the most iconic photographs of the 20c

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

It is very seldom that the very moment of a murder is caught on camera, and caught so vividly. This one, taken by photographer Bob Jackson, showing the fatal shooting by Jack Ruby of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, won a Pulitzer Prize. The perfection of the shot has led to many conspiracy theories; the angle is just right, Oswald is crumpling inwards instead of being thrown back by the force of the shot, the posture of Detective James R. Leavelle – the large man wearing a light-coloured suit and hat, to whom Oswald is handcuffed – is straight out of the silent movies, and the photo seems to have been taken from a single pace behind Ruby. It is even more remarkable when one considers that it was taken decades before cameras could take several exposures per second at the press of a button.

However, the fact that this famous image is cropped from a larger photograph, shown below, means that the story begins to fill out. Jackson’s vantage point is further away, and in fact the shot was taken around the left shoulder of another man who was several feet away from the incident. It’s true that many of the other people in the shot seem to be simply standing there as though waiting for something to play out, but “simply standing there” was exactly what they were supposed to be doing, whatever their job was. Take the man with the microphone, possibly a radio reporter: his expression is impassive, but just at that moment he has not had time to react to what is happening, and his view of the incident is blocked. Detective Leavelle can be seen to have his hand on Oswald’s belt, trying to jerk him round behind his own body, to put himself between his prisoner and the shooter, so that might be what is pulling Oswald’s body inwards. Capturing what is almost banal about the larger scene is as much a feat of news photography as is the presentation of the cropped image – maybe even more so. There is so much vérité here, or rather actualité.

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

James R. Leavelle died yesterday, at the age of 99. By a strange quirk of synchronicity, his death was announced at about the same time that the stabbing in prison of Sirhan Bishaa Sirhan was reported. Sirhan was the man convicted of killing President Kennedy’s brother Robert in 1968. Forty years later the San Diego Union Tribune cited that assassination as the first major incident of political violence in the USA directly related to the situation in the Middle East*. Leavelle, Oswald, Ruby, and two Kennedy brothers are dead**, and it seems that only Sirhan remains as a relict and reminder of an extraordinary period in US history.

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*I believe the comment was made on the 8thof June 2008, but due to expired links I can’t verify the source. If I find a link in the future I shall amend this footnote.

**Four, in fact, as older brother Joseph died in 1944, and younger brother Edward in 2009. I believe Jean Ann is the only Kennedy sibling of that generation who is still alive.

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The Book Festival: Photo-mix 2019

Today is the last day of the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as usual (though not usually on this blog until now) I have put together a collection of some of the snapshots I have taken during the fortnight-plus. I say “snapshots” deliberately. I use a second-hand Nikon D50, which is hardly cutting-edge. The pro photographers at the Festival rather look down on me, I guess. But I have simply been trying to capture some of the Festival atmosphere, starting with the inevitable picture of Prince Albert, who this year has a slightly unusual background while work is in progress on the dome of West Register House.

#CandidShots
You’ll see that tag as a caption to several of my pictures. The Festival Press Office has told me not to take pictures of the writers and performers other than at book-signings or at an organised photo-call. I try, I really do! But as I wander round, I take the equivalent of ‘street scenes’ in Charlotte Square Gardens, which I maintain are fair game, and they provide some welcome variety. Sometimes that means I snap interesting people by chance, sometimes it’s Jason Reynolds being interviewed on camera or Jackie Kay at an informal moment, and these are hard shots to resist. Other people are happily snapping away with their smartphones all the while! As it happens, I’ve included neither of those shots in the following mix, but some others are below simply because they represent the ambience of the Festival, and I make no apology for them.

It has been another wonderful Festival. I am very grateful for the Press Office for giving me a media pass once again, and I look forward to 2020. There is so much going on behind all the events and activities – for one thing there is a tireless contingent of staff assisting the festival-goers, selling books, conducting speakers, handling security, dealing with us pestiferous media folk, handling the technology, and so on. You all do a brilliant job. Congratulations!

Joanne Harris signing books in the Edinburgh Gin Company Tent.
#CandidShots. The main theatre has a new name this year.
Neil Oliver is always a very good subject on a photo-call. He takes the trouble to look straight at each camera lens in turn.
‘Blast Off’ was a session for children of all ages on the jobs that a person can be involved with in the field of space exploration. Astronomer Sheila Kanani was the draw for this event in the Spiegeltent.
#CandidShots. The space inside the main bookshop has widened since it was merged with the children’s bookshop in one single area. There’s still space to sit and enjoy traybakes and coffees.
The staff in sky blue work very hard, preparing venues, staffing information points, hosting customers and checking their tickets, so it’s nice to be able to take a break now and then. What better way to spend it than reading a book!
It doesn’t take the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency to track down Alexander McCall Smith.
One of the political figures visiting the Festival was leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.
Scottish sporting hero Chris Hoy – the Golden Postbox Man himself – was a great draw…
… as were his books!
#CandidShots. This is Festival Director Nick Barley, who stopped for a couple of words with someone queueing for the Spiegeltent.
Veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley…
… keeping the camera squad busy! #CandidShots
One of the reasons I was at the Festival this year was the James Tait Black Prize. I had been one of the postgraduate readers, and it was good to see the shortlisted books on the shelf in the main bookshop.
And the winners were, as previously reported, Lindsey Hilsum (biography) and Olivia Laing (fiction). This photo is reproduced courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and is ©Lesley Martin.
Sometimes it rained, but there was always a silver lining.
The resident photographer at the Festival is Chris Close. His work is hung around the walkways, and is one reason to keep coming back to the Festival during the whole of its run, to check on new hangings. Some of his work from this year is below, in montages I’ve put together.
Melanie Reid, Justin Davies, and Arundhati Roy, ©Chris Close.
Martin Rowson, Kei Miller, ©Chris Close.
Ian Rankin channeling Oor Wullie, complete with bucket, Jack Monroe, and a sinister shot of Dougie Irvine and Osvar Silva. ©Chris Close.
Journalist Peter Hitchens.
#CandidShots. The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!
Juxtaposing two bits of signage stresses that it’s important to be able to read and write!
Exclamation marks signal what you mustn’t do and what you must do!
Val McDermid, Geetha Marcus, and Danny Dorling.
Jamie Susskind, who delved into the possible future of AI.
#CandidShots. A walkway scene.
Stefi Orazi, who was at the Festival promoting her fascinating book on 20c architectural design and contemporary living, ‘Modernist Estates – Europe: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Today’.
#CandidShots. Seizing the opportunity to grab a selfie! (The Festival ‘blueshirt’ with the phone camera is off-shot.)
Nikesh Shukla stands firm in the face of lenses!
#CandidShots. Chilling out!
Sue Perkins is ready to rock!
Reflections in the window of the Spiegeltent – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’?
#CandidShots. I’ll tell you this much – I was out of there before the start of the evening ritual!

The copyright of the photos in this post rests with myself, except where indicated otherwise. Please do not use them elsewhere without first getting permission from me.

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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The Lonely Londoners drop in on Edinburgh

Patrice Lawrence: Workshop
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

Writers’ Retreat, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1pm. 23rdAugust 2019.

This will only be a short report, not a long review, because workshops at Edinburgh Book Festival are unlike chaired events or performances in the larger theatres. They have more in common with informal seminars, and this one was a matter of a couple of dozen of us sitting in a circle, listening to a writer enthusing about one of her favourite books. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, for Patrice Lawrence, was instrumental in helping her discover the Trinidadian side of her own heritage, and she described her delight in first reading it. A second reading revealed the sadness in it, and also a strong current of sexism displayed by the characters – after all, it is often young men who form the first wave of any migrant movement, and finding their feet sexually is as much a part of their experience as is learning their way around, absorbing culture, or getting used to the weather.

Entering the Writers’ Retreat to the sound of Lord Kitchener’s London Calypso, we, the attendees, had various levels of familiarity with The Lonely Londoners. I had studied it both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and in fact I have posted about it before; others had yet to read it. Patrice did manage to coax us to participate a little, but frankly we could have cheerfully floated along on her enthusiasm. The book itself, written in 1956, I can thoroughly recommend. It has an opening that is, or certainly ought to be, as famous as that of A Tale of Two Cities, 1984Pride and Pejudice, or Catcher in the Rye, evocative of an almost Dickensian London. Episodic, though with a common theme, it is arguably a piece of Modernist literature, with its shift of focus and point-of-view (though it is mainly in free indirect style, focalised on the character Moses), its lack of plot resolution, and a wonderful ten-page passage of stream of consciousness. It is full of flawed characters, chancers, overgrown boys out for a good time or simply trying to survive, and one uncompromising woman determined to treat London as if it were Jamaica and to travel in the city as though on a proud Odyssey, but we care about them all – Patrice reminded us of that fact. Above all it has a wonderful sense of time and place.

It was a great pleasure to meet Patrice, and I hope to do so again. As for the workshop experience at the Book Festival, do it if you get the chance.

No info available about this publicity shot of Patrice Lawrence. It was retrieved from an Edinburgh Festival web page.

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A Traveller Named Sue

Sue Perkins: Blundering through Asia
New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1.30pm. 22ndAugust, 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

After this event, I exchanged a few words with Jackie McGlone, who had chaired it. We confessed we’d both fallen a bit in love with Sue Perkins; this wasn’t going to be of any use to the three of us, because Jackie’s straight, Sue’s gay, and I’m male. Last I checked. Jackie told me that this follow-up to her first event that Sue had agreed to do at short notice, about her book East of Croydon – I hope no one needs me to explain the references in that title – had turned out to be totally different from the first one. This was due, of course, to Sue’s instantaneous wit, her never being lost for words or for ideas to express in those words. In fact, she had us laughing today without saying a word, just on the basis of a few facial expressions.

Sue Perkins is, of course, a very familiar figure in comedy and broadcasting. The more I listened to her and watched her today, the more I began to see – or rather suspect – that her public face was not all there was to her. I could see an occasional hint that there was a side to her that would only be revealed at home, with her boots off, to a partner. Then she would take a vacation from the Sue Perkins we all see, and with whom Jackie and I had just fallen in love, from her public persona. There is probably a space where she can be flat, or irritable, or just ordinary. That is not to say that her public persona is a false one, it can’t be, it’s essential, it’s Sue Perkins and that’s that. No one can do what she does without it coming from something dominant in their character.

On that basis, she had the audience in a sell-out NYT Theatre in the palm of her hand. We laughed, we were moved, and sometimes, due to her description of her experiences in Southeast Asia – notably the one about pig’s offal flying everywhere – we were close to upchucking. As Sue says, “It’s impossible to downchuck!” The choice of food in Southeast Asia, she told us, was between the unfamiliar dishes that the locals eat, and their attempts at Western cuisine. Her advice was not to be tempted by the apparently familiar; for example, they don’t really do dairy, so a Cambodian milkshake may very well have “a heavy back-taste of haddock.”

Sue’s moments of seriousness moved us. “How pretty poverty looks,” she said, “when you don’t have to live it.” She described a journey to a glacier, a place of pilgrimage high on a mountain, and likened the experience of silence and barrenness to transcendental meditation, to a loss of self, so that the gradual descent involved recognising objects like trees, colours, and the sound of human activity with something like surprise. Speaking of street children, and wanting to avoid the whole “white saviour” thing, she spoke about the only things she could give them having been an afternoon of uproarious playtime, and a few pairs of Converse shoes in sizes far too big for their feet. The humour of her delivery only made it more poignant.

Hilarity came in her description of teaching a few words of English to the women of a remote Cambodian community, without any interpreter to help them out. Sue had succeeding in teaching them how to count from one to ten, when she noticed that they were enthusiastically pointing to their upper torsos. She realised they wanted to know the word for breasts in English, so she taught them “Boobs.”

“Booooooooobs!” they all repeated in wonder and delight.

Then they began to point at their crotches, and Sue realised that they wanted another anatomical term in her native language. That was the moment when she went to pieces and ended up teaching them a non-existent word that sounded a bit Welsh. Honestly, Sue, what are you like! So there’s that, there’s therapy, there’s her mother, there’s her father, there’s her attitude to death, and there’s clinging to the back of a donkey at the edge of a thousand-foot drop, there’s a baby crying in the audience – “Ah, the sound of Brexit!” – and ultimately there’s a queue yea deep and yea long wanting copies of her book signed. That’s what it’s like with a headliner at the EIBF.

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