Archive for ‘Sunset Song’

February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

It was almost incredible that it could be true. We stood together in the darkened street, half delirious with joy, while tears mingled with our laughter.

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Guest post by Textor

Emotionally charged, with an echo of Wordsworth’s response to news of the French Revolution, these are the words Aberdonian John Paton on hearing that the Tsar had been overthrown. It was March 1917. It was the Russian Revolution. The thirty one year old socialist was leaving an election meeting where he’d supported the anti-war stance of Ramsay MacDonald. Since 1914 millions had been sucked into the bloody maelstrom of world war. For small bands of socialists across Europe the war was final proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism and as such had to be opposed despite lies in the press, willingly if not happily accepting threats of violence and imprisonment.

Anti-war socialists saw glimmers of hope in working class militancy which continued through these desperate years. Rent strikes, demands for 40 hour working week, the emergence of an unofficial shop steward movement all implicitly challenged political authority so much so that by 1917 “Red Clydesiders” were being harassed, sent to internal exile and gaoled. Socialists were buoyed but faced the fact that in Britain and across Europe, particularly in Germany, social democratic parties had taken up their respective national flags and helped drum men to the battle-fronts.

When John Paton left the election meeting on that fateful evening he met with a comrade who was almost choking with excitement at the news of the fall of the Tsar. Hardly surprising that local election politics were for the moment put into the shade. For John Paton events in Russia spurred him to greater political activity which eventually resulted in him becoming a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party.

In a similar fashion the cub reporter James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) was inspired by the later Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia so much so that he and a colleague could not sleep o’nights. We prowled Aberdeen . . . talking the moon into morning about jolly and heart-some and splendid things: life, death, the Revolution. Young Mitchell was then working for The Aberdeen Journal; the city’s most important newspaper. Since the 1740s the Journal had served Aberdeen with a generally conservative view of the world. In its time it had wagged a political and moral finger at the excessive demands of Chartists and seen off more radical newspaper rivals by accepting some of the liberal policies of the 19th century. Basically the Journal wanted men to be politically sensible. Political militancy, whether it was votes for women or re-division of land, was unacceptable, at least in the parliamentary “democracy” that was Britain.

James Leslie Mitchell’s enthusiasm was not shared by the Journal nor by its stable-mate The Evening Express.   However, this is not to say that the earlier phase of the Russian Revolution which had so captivated John Paton was denounced by the Aberdeen newspapers. We must remember that the British state and its mouthpieces were concerned with the prosecution of the war. Where John had seen universal hope for an end to the slaughter and the building of a more just world the Aberdeen papers believed that far from doing this the fall of the Tsarist autocracy would mean a more rational organisation of Russia’s military forces, taking power from the hands of an incompetent regime, with what they called dark and mysterious forces behind the throne, and placing it with men in the Russian parliament, the Duma; in other words a new regime with some sort of political legitimacy, consequently better able to work with Britain and her allies by marshalling workers and peasants to fight the German enemy.     

In March 1917 Aberdeen Daily Journal welcomed the “Revolution” and confidently predicted that a more democratic empire could be built with the help of Grand Duke Michael and on this solid foundation the energetic prosecution of the war [would be] their first consideration. And at the same time that it praised Russia for holding fast to the European battlefields where millions were dying the newspaper congratulated Russia for not taking the bloody path of the 1905 revolution or that mapped out in France in 1789. As the Evening Express put it the simple-hearted, generous, hospitable Russians were following a course of common sense in showing a willingness to keep the slaughter going.

On the other hand there was an enemy in Britain, conspiring to defeat the just ends being pursued by the state, personified in the person of Ramsay MacDonald: Aberdeen wants no peace bargainers, no mischief makers, in a time of national crisis. Russia, said the Journal must also beware Socialists and fanatical Revolutionaries. Ramsay MacDonald is now one of the great villains of Labour history; the man who sold out to the National Government and Conservatism. But this is to forget he and others had the courage and we might say the decency to stand against the bloodletting of 1914-18 even if this was from a pacifist stance rather than, as the young John Paton would have demanded, a revolutionary overthrow of the property owning class. 

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It just so happened that Aberdeen played its own small part in ensuring the pacifist MacDonald with his M.P. colleague Fred Jowett of Bradford were prevented in June 1917 from attending an anti-war socialist meeting in Petrograd. Aberdeen was the “certain port” from which these two men attempted to sail only to be stopped by organised labour under the leadership of Captain Edward Tupper of the seamen’s union. Pickets at the harbour threw their luggage ashore and followed them to their lodgings to keep them from sailing. Needless to say the local press was enchanted by this show of militancy, displaying a support for picketing which tended to be conspicuous by its absence in earlier industrial strikes.

When the Bolshevik Lenin was given safe passage by the Germans to the Finland Station in April unsurprisingly he was said to be an agent of the Kaiser, the editor of the Evening Express advised the Russian state now is the time for a supreme effort to trample down the internal enemy before hurling back the invader. Equally unsurprising the newspapers also saw MacDonald and his ILP comrades as doing the Kaiser’s work not to mention men and women going on strike threatening to disrupt munitions production.

Regardless of all the political guidance being given and the moral exhortations made it still looked as if the events in Russia had a dynamic beyond the control of any of the states involved in mutual destruction. The “moderate”, pro-war, Russian leader Kerensky seemed unable to guide things to the desired end. In Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk (Parish Church) on the third anniversary of the outbreak of war Colonel the Rev. James Smith preached asking God to intercede on the side of Britain: he prayed to God that a better day might speedily dawn upon distracted Russia and that the men of patriotic spirit and invincible courage be forthcoming to lead one of the greatest and most ancient of Empires to the destiny that awaited her. That destiny turned out to be not the one desired by the Rev. Smith or the local editors. Perhaps the call for God to intercede had not been heard or God (some Hegelian might say History) had set course for a future beyond their imaginations.

Come October-November 1917 and pro-war elements had their worst fear was realised: in Petrograd and beyond workers and peasants organised in councils sought peace and began to imagine a world which might be other than the one they now lived in. This was, however, more than a mental act. The councils, packed with voices from all parts of the political spectrum, were organised around degrees of holding power, making decisions which carried force and when necessary using armed militias to achieve their ends. This is what the British and other voices of “reason and common sense” could neither comprehend nor accept.   The Bolsheviks were wiser, their political programme, as much as it might have been made on the hoof at times, recognised the dynamics of class action and were able to place themselves at the head of this deeply revolutionary situation. Where revolutionaries saw liberation and new found freedoms the status-quo perceived only anarchy, an upsetting of the natural order and more immediately the loss of privilege and power. 

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One of the local editors wrote: It is incredible that the Russian people would long tolerate a system which aims at undermining the foundations of the whole fabric of society . . . But undermine it they did. The exploited across Russia and many beyond its frontiers recognised that the “foundations of the whole fabric of society” included systematic exploitation of workers and peasants, imperial adventures and colonisation which had given the world the blood drenched trenches across Europe. Who held power, and to what ends, this was one of the keys to explaining 1917 and indeed equally important to understanding the future of what became Soviet Russia and the emergence of a regime which eventually needed no lessons in how to repress and control civil society.

But this was in the future. Socialists might at times be star-gazers but they are not clairvoyants. The emergence of workers and peasant councils pointed to new social forms around which a new world might be built. One hundred years on John Paton’s words hint at how it must have been:

 Every day brought its fresh excitements and new hopes that even now something of lasting good for Socialists in Britain was to come out of the war.

December 5, 2015

Sunset Song less Blawearie than Bladrearie

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The novel Sunset Song is a powerful, sensitive book, intelligent, evocative of rural life in north east Scotland before the First World War. It ends shockingly and brutally with a hint of the breakdown of a way of life and passage into a different one as the trilogy continues in the succeeding two volumes of A Scots’ Quair.

I was full of guarded anticipation before seeing the film, and trepidation. A native of north east Scotland, though not Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, I’ve seen my fair share of botched productions ostensibly set here but which make no effort to replicate the tongue nor sense of place.

From audiences in Aberdeen there were the inevitable complaints of they didn’t capture the accent. I agree but surely a small point? But they’re actors, it was said. Yes, indeed they are.

Sunset Song the film fairly missed a Billy Riddoch to instil depth and authenticity into it. The Doric, as lightly as Gibbon had included it, was absent. (I struggle to understand many American accents in films so I won’t take any lessons on Scots’ accents being any more difficult for international audiences.)

For many women in this part of the world we are Chris Guthrie. She is one of literature’s great heroines. Her family are small tenant farmers – not crofters as a reviewer in the Financial Times claimed. She was bright and ready to go on to train as a teacher before tragedy struck her family and as the daughter of the household was expected to give up her independence for domesticity. She is, therefore, trapped and the film director conveyed this through a series of interior scenes dark and shadowy with shafts of sunlight through a window or glint of fire or candlelight. But Chris was never wholly trapped for she lived through her imagination that was given free rein outdoors in the majestic and dramatic landscape of the Mearns – among the mysterious stone circles. Sadly there was no sense of this in the film which turned her world into a series of Dutch interiors with the delicate heroine flitting between rooms.

When Chris took over the farm the Director had her look back into the house as if stone walls signified her freedom. The real Chris Guthrie escaped onto the hills and into the fields to lie on land her father worked as had generations of men and women before him. People who hauled great boulders from the red, rich soil, who uprooted whin and broom and chopped down trees and wrocht the grun till oats and barley flourished. She knew when she lay down on heather or corn stubble scratching at her back with the peesies flying overhead that this was not a desert but land shaped by generations of farmers who were not only farmers for some were Jacobins who’d gather in Aberdeen to riot for liberty, equality and fraternity; Covenanters; Jacobites who fought with Charlie; men who attacked the English garrison at Dunnottar with Wallace; Picts that mapped the land and skies, who quarried and worked and arranged their circles of stones in ways magical and mysterious. This was Chris Guthrie’s inheritance and the very essence of the Chris was no pre-Raphaelite flimsy cut-out but a woman rooted in tradition whose back was strong from hard-work, not the pretty young thing who had daintily stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair onto alien soil.

Peter Mullan was a good brutish John Guthrie but he might have been John Guthrie a granite mason in Aberdeen (apart from the accent) for there wasn’t any sense he was part of that community of fellow tenant farmers, bothy billies, ploughmen and orra men – the majority of whom had lives constrained and ambitions dashed by poverty and exigency. We did see past the mere coarse brute to the former man and lover of the dead wife as he took her hand and kissed her and it was not a stretch to see the same strains that were later placed upon Ewan Tavendale when forced by social pressures to uproot himself from the life he knew and loved to fight in a war that meant nothing to him. In this episode he is transformed from the thoughtful young husband into a defeated victim who turns his anger and frustration onto his wife and child, and as with John Guthrie we see beyond the defensive shell both men built around themselves.

There was no sense of the northeast in the film; the land so beautiful, the skies so vast, the sea so shimmering, the cries and flutterings of the peesies. The folk of the northeast are couthy and friendly and acerbically humorous as they cut each and everyone down to size. Those powerful characters of Chae Strachan, a socialist and good friend of Chris’s, and Long Rob of the Mill who worshipped no particular religious or political god but had a good sense of himself – they were mere walk-on parts in the film. The ideals and radicalism woven into the book got scarce mention and without that so much of the novel’s impact is lost.

The setting for Sunset Song was quite particular. Life is not the same for people throughout Scotland never mind the United Kingdom. Sure we all have things in common but there are nuances of differences which are interesting and do matter. The Director is surely oblivious to this.

One scene set in a wee Presbyterian kirk looks good but the music, bad throughout the film (not just bad but really, really awful) was more high English church with its soaring choirs singing of ‘lembs’ and has absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish kirk and turned the scene into a farce. (The old kirks had no organs and the congregation followed a precentor  in unaccompanied psalm singing – the result was a wonderful ebb and flow of sound.) And why were the good farming folk of the Mearns walking through the barley to get to the kirk? Did they not have roads or tracks? Think they did. Just silly.

Films rarely live up to a good book and this one certainly doesn’t. Some will enjoy it for what it is – a pithy drama – but it isn’t Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, more Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm.

 

PS If only groundsman Willie had been the voice coach …

PPS I have read that Terence Davies regards this minor classic as ‘very badly written’. The arrogance of the man to take a fine piece of literature which as I say above he does not understand and destroy it in the eyes of many by making an inferior film and then criticise the book for being poor beggars belief. 

He said in the same interview he never watched the original film version – it shows Terence Davies. You should have  and then you might have learnt a thing or two – but for a man with an ego as huge as his he would probably have rejected this much superior version as much as Gibbon’s original work. 

Please Terence Davies do not attempt to film the remaining books in the trilogy – leave that for someone who knows what they are about.