Looking for an album, film or book to make our new Coronavirus reality more bearable? Why not start here…
Album: ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ (1974) by Gil Scott Heron
This collection of songs by the late great Heron should be compulsory listening for everyone. As relevant now, in these turbulent times, as on its release in 1974, its title track is a popular slogan amongst the Black Power movement: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The song is a call for action, damning the politically inactive couch potato – and now You tube and Netflix – generation.
Another track, Pieces of a Man, is a ballad that tells the story of a once proud worker who is too embarrassed to tell his family that he has lost his job so he rips up his redundancy letter. Its pieces are a metaphor for his now shattered existence and uncertain future.
Home is Where The Hatred Is is about a drug user who can’t go home as everyone hates him for taking drugs.
There isn’t a bad track on the album. Whitey on Moon pours scorn on the US Government for spending millions of dollars getting a white man into space than dealing with the poverty, addiction, crime and health issues so prevalent in American black ghettos, while Lady Day and John Coltrane just swings.
Apart from Heron’s landmark lyrics and inimitable molasses-toned voice, the backing is delivered by some of the greatest funk jazz musicians of the 20th Century: Ron Carter on bass, Pretty Purdie on drums, Hubert Laws on saxophone and Brian Jackson on piano.
Described by Ebony magazine as “mind-blowing”, it is a spectacular album gleaned from four years of recordings from which the roots of rap run deep.
Film: ‘Heavens Gate’ (1980)
More famous for bankrupting a studio due to disappointing box office sales than the quality of the movie itself, Heaven’s Gate is a glorious Western directed by the late Michael Cimino.
It stars Christopher Walken, Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Mickey Rourke and Isabelle Hupert alongside a veritable lexicon of superb Hollywood character actors. Now many recognise it for what it is – a great classic movie.
A tale of attempted ethnic cleansing, based on the true story of the Johnson County War, set in Wyoming in 1890, it tells the story of James Averill (Kristofferson) who is the Sheriff of Johnson County. He looks after a community mainly inhabited by dirt poor foreign immigrants settlers and farmers who – much to the annoyance of the wealthy and predominantly upper-class English cattle barons – compete with them for land, livestock and water rights.
This leads to the the cattlemen’s representatives, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, effectively declaring war on the immigrant farmers. With the blessing of the corrupt state government, they bring in an army of guns for hire. These hit-men frame the settlers for rampant rustling and, backed by US cavalry, attack the immigrants en masse with a view to either killing or expelling them from the state. The battle saw the might of the cattleman’s association lay siege to 200 settlers and lawmen in one of the great shoot-outs of the Wild West.
The story is still relevant today, as inner cities are hollowed-out of the poor, and land is sold off to developers and corporate chains. Instead of guns for hire, expensive lawyers and their deep pockets are used to achieve these goals.
Book: ‘Down And Out In London and Paris’ (1933) by George Orwell
I first read this as part of my ‘A’ level literature course back before time began. I liked it then, but now I love it. Probably because, in the ensuing years, after suffering penury on a few occasions, I have come to understand its themes a darn sight more.
Published in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, it is a memoir in two parts that tells of Orwell as a ‘down and out’ – a phrase I’ve always presumed means down on luck and out of society.
The first half tells of his time in Paris, where destitution looms large and then settles on his back like a vulture. He has to pawn his clothing to eat and when, all he has left are the clothes on his back, he finds a job as a plongeur – a dishwasher in Hotel X. Here, he penetrates the world of the dirt poor. Sleeping, eating barely enough to stay alive and then drinking without even his overcoat, he starves for two days straight. Eventually, on a Saturday night, he walks through night-time Paris to forget his woes. Along the way, he meets a cacophony of larger-than-life characters – Russian emigres, swindlers, waiters, thieves – that only extreme penury or extreme wealth can provide.
“He [a dishwasher] is no freer than if he were bought and sold,” Orwell writes. “His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive… He has been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeur thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.”
Its relevance hasn’t faded one bit. Many immigrants, often here illegally, are working 18 hours days in such conditions for far less than the minimum wage in London. Unscrupulous employers hold on to passports; modern slavery is alive and well in 2020.
Reluctantly, Orwell comes back to London – with his tail between his legs – expecting a job, which falls though. So, he lives as a tramp in lodging houses or “spikes’ – what we now call homeless hostels. Again, he comes across an array of larger-than-life characters such as Paddy, the Irish hobo, whose “ignorance was limitless and appalling”.
“At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty,” writes Orwell. “Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy.”
Today, homelessness is rife and, as then, little is done by the Government to alleviate the situation or target its root causes. As Orwell points out, the homeless are the victims of circumstance and not design.
As is his want, Orwell adds a liberal splash of political commentary, lashings of dry sardonic wit and beautifully executed observation. It is a wonderful book by anyone’s measure.