Daily Archives: Tuesday, April 3, 2007

  • The Hive of Liberty: the Life and Work of Thomas Spence (ed. Keith Armstrong)

    Pearls Before Swine, by Tom Jennings. Review of The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (edited by Keith Armstrong), published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 6, March 2007Pearls Before Swine  by Tom Jennings 
     [published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 6, March 2007]
    Tom Jennings welcomes renewed interest in 18th century Tyneside radical Thomas Spence 
    Newcastle in the late 18th century was a hotbed of radical political associations (e.g. Constitutional Club, Independent Club) and dissenting church sects. It was also a thriving centre for printing (French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat visited regularly and launched The Chains of Slavery there) and grassroots education. One notable beneficiary of and contributor to this climate of ferment and potential was Thomas Spence (1750-1814), an indefatigable enemy of exploitation and oppression who expounded lower-class insurrection and seizure of the land. The newly-formed Thomas Spence Trust’s The Hive of Liberty introduces his life and work; with the latter scarcely in print over two centuries but now largely reproduced on their website. The pamphlet includes various perspectives on the man, his ideas and their significance – including his virtual disappearance from history and patronising appropriation by authoritarian Marxism – together with extracts from his writing and the responses of others over the years.
    One of nineteen children, Spence’s self-education started with his Glassite (dissident Presbyterian) parents,  impoverished Scottish immigrant netmakers. Characteristically ahead of his time, he published an educational tract with a new phonetic alphabet to encourage literacy among the poor while working as a teacher on the Quayside. Active in local debating clubs, he gave a talk (later called ‘The Real Rights of Man’ or ‘Spence’s Plan’) to the Newcastle Philosophical Society after the colonial war in America started in 1775, having been the first to use the term ‘the rights of man’ (in a 1782 tribute to Jack the Blaster, an ex-miner cave-squatting at Marsden Rocks, South Shields). He later distributed Thomas Paine’s book of that title, stressing its flaws concerning the private ownership of land – the abolition of which he asserted was fundamental. Regrettably, the Newcastle freethinkers were intransigent in supporting bourgeois property rights; Spence even being cudgelled by his friend, engraver Thomas Bewick, over the issue.
    Unable to make headway up north, Spence moved to London and by the time of the 1789 French revolution was busy agitating, educating and organising – though again too extreme for groups such as the London Corresponding Society. Travestying conservative Edmund Burke’s characterisation of ordinary people as ‘the swinish multitude’, Spence called his regular broadsheet Pigs Meat. He also minted hundreds of coins and tokens bearing cartoons, attacks on politicians of the day and general radical mottoes. This propaganda method combined with bill-posting and wall-slogan blitzes proved much more difficult for the authorities to quell than his stream of books and pamphlets, which included The End of Oppression, the proto-feminist The Rights of Infants, and several works about fictional utopias  ‘Spensonia’ and ‘Crusonia’ – sequelising Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe in revolutionary directions.
    Paranoia about the English masses emulating their French counterparts yielded many Acts of Parliament suppressing freedom of speech from the 1990s onwards, when Spence endured severe beatings from government agents and periods of imprisonment, with or without trial, on charges of seditious libel and high treason for distributing his own and Paine’s work. When at large he ran a bookshop (‘The Hive of Liberty’ in Holborn) and stalls selling printed matter along with the drink ‘saloup’. Affinity groups and their missionary work disseminating Spence’s Plan organised via ‘free and easy’ pub gatherings to avoid surveillance, with lectures, debates, songs and poetry. After his death in penury in 1815, supporters expanded their grassroots activity despite relentless suppression – a law even being deemed necessary in 1817 to explicitly prohibit “societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists”.
    Of course Spence (and most early agrarian socialists) could not tackle questions of industrial development and capital accumulation in complex societies. Static universal principles ignoring historical process in the oppositional politics of the time usually derived from millenarian religious traditions, overcompensating for feudal ideologies of ‘divine rights’ with naïve redemptive faith in rationalist enlightenment. Nevertheless the pragmatic emphases on local, bottom-up control, federalism and direct democracy resonated loudly among the rabble but appalled the contemporary great and good and later leftist intellectual aristocrats alike – who were naturally also contemptuous of his trust in the potential integrity of the common people. The sensitivity to issues of colonial encroachment, land use and ecology, and the social positions of women and children similarly resonates across the centuries; while the perennially unhelpful unhinging of righteous idealism from concrete struggle haunts us still.
    Purportedly bringing The Hive of Liberty “up to date”, Newcastle artist George French concludes that: “the Spencean project has failed … we can no longer rely on solidarity, association or community action … The only oppositional space left to exist is in our own heads and … personal action”. Oh, really? Presumably intended to provoke debate, such defeatist sophistry would certainly have Spence spinning in his grave. Whereas the refusal of elitism, twisting of popular culture, and enthusiasm for grass-roots intercourse and the irrepressible anti-hierarchical power of dialogue, humour, and shared enjoyment in spaces collectively created amidst worldly misery remain indispensable – but only given the humility and empathy to resist jaded delusions of intellectual grandeur. As he put it: ‘Can tyrants hinder people from singing at their work, or in their families? Sing and meet and meet and sing and your chains will drop off like burnt thread.’
    The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (edited by Keith Armstrong, with introduction by Joan Beal; 40pp, ISBN 1 871536 15 4) is available priced £5 (+£1.50 p+p) from the Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD; see also: http://www.thomas-spence-society.co.uk

  • Ossessione – Luchino Visconti

    I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years. The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films. Ossessione – Luchino Visconti – 1942 – Italy : Clara Calamae; Massimo Girotti
    Viewed Star and Shadow Jan 2007.  Ticket price £3-50

    I prefers the woman with a basket full of eggs to the woman with lipstick

    I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years.

    The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films.  Garnett introduces them using a cute gimmick: Lana Turner drops her lipstick case across the diner floor to where Garfield sits.  The lipstick a snare like device catches in its traces both Garfield and the audience initiating a film of  relationship intensities that are self referential, plot bound and plot driven.  The audience is carried from the lipstick to the Chair subject to two judgmental systems: the internalised voice over delivered by Garfield and the externalised justice system that represents the accounting of the second half of the movie.  In short the connections that Hollywood asks both the players and the audience to make are in the main mechanical linkages of the action – the plot.  

    In Ossessione the eyeball scene has the drifter sitting at the back of the empty bar look up – his eye catching a peripheral movement – and see the owner’s wife facing him from behind the bar holding before her an immense basket of eggs.  She turns and goes into the kitchen.
    The image is both natural in the sense the eggs are supplies for the kitchen and powerfully suggestive of multiple latent possibilities.  The lipstick is a simple signifier, a mask of sexuality which can only point to what it is an intensifier of desire.   The egg is primary and hence ambiguous – containing within its the form ideas of sex and fertility, and also within its form strongly implying the creation of new life.  Eggs also suggest comfort ingestion and sensuality of texture and colour.  They are fragile and can break easily.  In short eggs are a world.  And it is with the idea of self contained but open worlds that Visconti opens up the dynamics of  Ossessione.  Visconti, who had before the war been working with Renoir is about worlds and domains and the states of mind that they evince.  Hollywood  is about plot  and stars.

    Osessione not only contains within itself multiple worlds and domains but it is also in itself contained and held within the world of rural Italy.  Garnett’s Postman takes place in a bubble (a bubble beside the road but the highway intrudes hardly at all).  Ossessione is not just located in the countryside it is part of the countryside.  The eggs, the food the country activities and the work of fields in which the workers are winnowing.  Ossessione is located in the calendar and rhythm of the seasons of which it is both a part and an  aberration like unseasonal weather.

    Visconti’s drifter moves from world to world.  The opening is a long tracking shot, the point of view of the drifter from the cab of a lorry, in which we see the road open out and then rush past us.   The lorry stops at the first world – the bar – which contains the dissatisfied wife of its owner.  The shots that comprise this first sequence, composed still images and tracks create a world of potential destinies: but not a world of overdeterminations. It seems to me it is a world that in the main is constituted out of the state of mind of the drifter who is both attracted and repelled by its inherent possibilities.  In the course of the film the drifter explores at least two other worlds.  The world of travelling entertainer whose invitation to accompany him is accepted.  This world contains within itself  a different sexual domain:   homosexuality with its implied less onerous and lighter form of commitment – no eggs.  The world is experienced as floating ever changing and without a centre.    The world of the prostitute is encapsulated within her room which is an extraordinary assemblage of wallpaper and objects calling up  mood identity and memory that overwhelms the emotions both of the drifter and the viewer. State of mind takes the drifter back to the bar and the world, now darker in which it is contained, though by now it become a multi faceted world each returning an altered reflection back to the viewer.  The bar the kitchen the bedroom the wardrobe containing the murdered husband’s clothes all trigger a different understanding of what is happening.   

    Visconti closes his film by transposing the action to a world characterised by undifferentiated space, shots that are set in unreferenced locations. The drifter and the wife float in a world that is comprised of the consequences of the decisions that have been made.   The woman is pregnant as they try to escape, one of her eggs has been fertilised.  The final sequences in the scrub by the river and in the car squeeze the two lovers together, and in a way the little car is like an egg in which they are both contained.  An egg that will crack.  The final playing out of plot which always remains a background feature of the film has nothing to do with the judgemental system but everything to do with human fragility.
    adrin neatrour