Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, new film


This September 2017 video is called THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS | Official Trailer.

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

The Man Who Invented Christmas: Charles Dickens and the writing of A Christmas Carol

8 December 2017

Directed by Bharat Nalluri; screenplay by Susan Coyne, based on the book by Les Standiford.

“No one could feel more deeply for Nature’s stepchildren, the blind, the dumb, and the deaf, nor more deeply–and this says even more–for the stepchildren of society .”

–Franz Mehring on Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, published on December 19, 1843, is the story of the dramatic moral transformation of the wealthy, miserly, misanthropic businessman Ebenezer Scrooge, under the influence of several ghostly spirits who pay him a visit on Christmas Eve.

The spirits help Scrooge see the error of his dreadful ways, including the mistreatment of his overworked and impoverished clerk, Bob Cratchit, who has a crippled son, known as Tiny Tim. Scrooge’s initial comment about Tim, who is not expected to live long, is cruel and Malthusian: “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge’s brutal comments about the benefits for the poor of prisons, workhouses and “the Treadmill” also come back to haunt and shame him (“Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief”).

A Christmas Carol struck a chord with readers in the 1840s, in the midst of the social misery produced by the rise of capitalist industry, and it has remained a staple of popular world literature ever since.

Dickens (1812-1870) began successful public readings of the book in 1849, which he continued until the year of his death.

Modern audiences are more likely to know the novella, or elements of it, from the numerous film and television adaptations. In fact, nearly 20 movies based on A Christmas Carol have been made since 1901, including seven silent versions. Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951) and Albert Finney (1970, in a musical version) are among the leading performers who have taken on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in film.

There have been, as well, dozens of theater, radio and television adaptations (with Lionel Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Ralph Richardson, Fredric March, Alec Guinness, Michael Hordern, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart, among many others, as the immortal miser). There are even five operas based on the work.

Perhaps inevitably, most of the various “second-hand” versions tend to play up the more sentimental and melodramatic aspects of Dickens’ book, which is also an attempt to present something of a panorama of English reality at the time and introduces dozens of characters from various walks of life.

The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, is a biographical fantasy that involves an effort to bring A Christmas Carol once again to the screen, this time by reinventing it. For this purpose, the filmmakers turned to the 2008 novel of the same title by Les Standiford, which includes Dickens himself as a character along with his literary creations.

The movie opens as Dickens (Dan Stevens), at the peak of his popularity following the publication of Oliver Twist, is ending his 1842 North America tour. (His travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation includes a condemnation of slavery, linking the plight of the poor in England to that of the slaves in the US).

After his return to London, Dickens’ career undergoes a serious decline over the next several years, with the failure of his next three novels (Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge), thereby increasing his financial difficulties. (“London is not a place for a man without money”, Dickens explains in the film). Under intense pressure, Charles begins composing A Christmas Carol.

His publishers, however, see no great potential in a Christmas tale, and give him six weeks to complete the book. Accompanied by his friend and literary agent (and real-life biographer), John Forster (Justin Edwards), Dickens goes to a restaurant where the arrogant William Thackeray (1811-1863), a rival novelist best known for Vanity Fair (1848), taunts the hard-pressed Charles. It’s not long, however, before the writer draws his first inspiration from a rich man’s funeral that is absent of mourners.

Also feeding his imagination is one of his servants, Tara (Anna Murphy), a young, literate Irish immigrant who sparks his interest in a ghostly world (“Spirits crowd over us on Christmas eve”). As the story begins to take shape, Charles interacts with his characters (“Get the name right, and if you’re lucky, the characters will appear.”), most prominently the wizened Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Jacob Marley (Donald Sumpter), Scrooge’s deceased business partner, emerges from the darkness: “I wear the chains I forged in life–Your chains are all around you–past and present and what is to come.”

The arrival of his irresponsible father, John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce), is an impediment to Charles’ work. It is also the occasion for flashbacks to his early adolescence, when Dickens was forced to work at a blacking factory (pasting labels on pots of boot polish) for six shillings a week, 10 hours a day Monday through Saturday, after his father was taken off to debtors’ prison. Tens of thousands of people unable to pay their debts were incarcerated in such institutions each year in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain.

Even Charles’ relationship with his pregnant wife Kate (Morfydd Clark)–“Sometimes I feel your characters mean more to you than your own flesh and blood”–and the rest of his household, run by Mrs. Fisk (Miriam Margolyes), becomes strained.

Developing something of a writer’s block, Charles is stumped as to whether Scrooge will be reformed and whether Tiny Tim will live or die. In the end, Scrooge’s redemption also redeems Charles’ relationship with his father (“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of another”). Commissioning eight engravings from John Leech (Simon Callow), Charles manages to write the book and scrape together the funds to have it illustrated, printed, bound and distributed to shops in six weeks’ time!

The Man Who Invented Christmas is intended as a piece of light entertainment, and it accomplishes certain of its goals. Stevens as Dickens is the energetic, spirited artist at the mercy of the market. At times amusing, the movie does manage to convey the fact that life in Victorian England is insecure and precarious, and that even the successful Dickens feels the shadow of the debtors’ prison as he races against the clock to fulfill the outrageous demands of his publishers.

But even light entertainment has certain responsibilities. In the popular vein too, opportunities have been missed here. The simplistic, unnecessarily slight film makes only insubstantial, passing references to poverty among children–a major issue then as it is today. (Unhappily, “Dickensian” is a term that cannot yet be retired to the museum shelf.) Related to that, too much emphasis is placed on secondary psychological factors in The Man Who Invented Christmas, such as the father-son relationship.

Dickens was an immense figure, deeply affected by the social and economic transformations of his day, and not merely as the result of his own personal experiences.

The influential American critic Edmund Wilson, commented: “It is difficult for British pundits to see in him the great artist and social critic that he was. … [Dickens] was nevertheless the greatest dramatic writer that the English had had since Shakespeare, and he created the largest and most varied world.” Whenever the novelist comes to deal with institutions, Wilson went on, “he makes them either ridiculous or cruel, or both at the same time.” (“Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” 1941)

The origins of A Christmas Carol were not as slight and jovial as The Man Who Invented Christmas would have us believe. According to letterpile.com: “Charles Dickens was involved in charities and social issues throughout his entire life. In early 1843 he read a government report describing the conditions of women and children employed in mines and factories, it described the abuse of the laborers. [Friedrich Engels read the same report, which documented that children as young as eight were hauling coal carts 11 hours a day.] He was stricken down by these victims. Dickens vowed he would strike a ‘sledge hammer blow,’ on behalf of the ‘poor man’s child.’”

“The idea for the Carol came to him in October 1843, while doing a talk [in industrial Manchester, England, where the average life expectancy of a laborer in 1842 was 17]; he thought the best way to bring attention to the horror that was happening, would be to write a story instead of an article.”

In A Christmas Carol, a boy and a girl, Ignorance and Want, are hidden in the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. “‘They are Man’s, and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’”

Is this so remote from our own time?

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Poet Mayakovsky in theatre play


This 10 October 2017 video from the Netherlands is the trailer of the play Majakovski/Oktober by theatre company De Warme Winkel.

On 23 November 2017, I went to see Majakovski/Oktober at the Leiden theatre.

Its subject is the life and work of Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930).

This video is called The voice and ethos of Mayakovsky.

When he started as a poet, he did not like symbolism, which was rather widespread then.

He was a radical innovator, inventing the ‘stepladder poem’, in which narrow lines run diagonally down a wider page. These innovations are similar to other avantgarde poets, like Flemish Paul van Ostaijen.

Before 1914, he joined the Futurist movement; which in Russia differed from their Italian colleagues.

In 1915, Mayakovsky fell in love with Lili Brik, a central person in the avantgarde art world. Later, she would feature on a famous Rodchenko poster.

Lili Brik on Rodchenko poster

In 1916, there was trouble in the relationship with Lili Brik. This led to Mayakovsky’s first, failed, suicide attempt. According to Brik, later there was a second failed attempt. Finally, in 1930 after more deceptions in his love life, Mayakovsky made his third attempt, this time successful.

What happened in 1917 in Russia caused him to overcome the sadness which had led to his first attempt to kill himself. In February, a massive workers’ strike drove away the repressive czarist regime. When the new provisional government continued the czar’s participation in the World War I bloodbath and told workers and peasants to wait for improvements till after victory in the war, the October revolution, with its ‘Peace, land, bread’ slogan expelled the provisional government.

Over 150,000 people came to Mayakovsky’s funeral, as this video shows.

In a 1930 obituary, Leon Trotsky wrote:

It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

This is a strange remark, as Mayakovsky had joined the revolutionary movement when he was only fourteen years old. More precisely, he joined the Bolshevik tendency among the revolutionaries; which Trotsky would only join ten years later, months before the October revolution. (Partisans of Stalin would reproach Trotsky with being a Johnny-come-lately. Though they were not really consequent. Look at prominent Stalin supporter Andrey Yanuaryevich Vyshinsky. In 1917 had been a pro-provisional government pro-World War I Menshevik. He had tried to have Lenin arrested, and joined the Bolsheviks three years after Trotsky did).

Trotsky had written about Mayakovsky more extensively earlier, with praise but also some sharp criticism.

A. V. Lunacharsky, ex-Soviet Minister of Culture, in a 1931 long obituary reacted critically to Trotsky’s obituary:

Trotsky says that Mayakovsky took his life because the revolution did not proceed according to Trotsky; now, had it gone according to Trotsky, it would have blossomed out in such dazzling fireworks that Mayakovsky would never have dreamed of grieving.

Now, from 1931 to the 2017 play.

This 6 November 2017 video shows what happens backstage at Majakovski/Oktober.

On the flyers of the play, the theatre company alludes to the Dutch social democrat PvdA party, which at recent elections lost most of their voters due to being infected with Blairism.

This 16 October 2017 video shows actresses Annelinde Bruijs en Mara van Vlijmen. They tell how they swapped their roles.

There are six actors in the play, four women and two men, apart from the Mayakovsky role. These six roles are not named. Who are they? Are they Mayakovsky’s lovers, Lili Brik and Veronika Polonskaya? And old colleagues of the poet from the Futurist movement? The dialogues give that impression.

The theme of the play is disrespectful treatment of someone who has died by survivors. Symbolized in the play by the six actors using Mayakovsky’s dead body as a plaything. Dik Boutkan, the actor of the Mayakovsky role, did well at being a dead body during most of the performance, except at the beginning and the end. He is not exceptionally tall, contrary to Mayakovsky. In general, the acting was good.

A review in Dutch daily De Volkskrant says that is a pity the play is more on the poet’s death and after than on his life and work. I have to agree at least somewhat with that.

There is a parallel with another famous artist who killed himself: Vincent van Gogh (though with Van Gogh it is less certain it was really suicide).

In a review of the recent film Loving Vincent, Joanne Laurier wrote:

In the course of the movie, [Doctor] Gachet’s daughter Marguerite asks Armand [Roulin] at one point: “You want to know so much about his death–but what do you know about his life?” This, unfortunately, is a question that can be posed to Loving Vincent as a project.

Ms Laurier cannot accuse Loving Vincent of neglecting Van Gogh’s work, as the paintings, recreated by oil painters, are at the heart of the film.

With Majakovski/Oktober, one may ask: is there enough in the play about his poems? Yes, many lines of them are quoted.

However, not more political lines, like pro-peace lines.

In 1917, Mayakovsky wrote one of various poems against World War I. This one:

Call To Account!

The drum of war thunders and thunders.
It calls: thrust iron into the living.
From every country
slave after slave
are thrown onto bayonet steel.
For the sake of what?
The earth shivers
hungry
and stripped.
Mankind is vapourised in a blood bath
only so
someone
somewhere
can get hold of Albania.
Human gangs bound in malice,
blow after blow strikes the world
only for
someone’s vessels
to pass without charge
through the Bosporus.
Soon
the world
won’t have a rib intact.
And its soul will be pulled out.
And trampled down
only for someone,
to lay their hands on
Mesopotamia
.
Why does
a boot
crush the Earth — fissured and rough?
What is above the battles’ sky –
Freedom?
God?
Money!
When will you stand to your full height,
you,
giving them your life?
When will you hurl a question to their faces:
Why are we fighting?

Still a pertinent poem asking a pertinent question, now with the 2017 wars.

And why does the play neglect Mayakovsky’s theatre plays (obviously useful at first sight for a theatre company)? The films he made? And how about the background, the 1917 Russian revolution mentioned in the title, but not elaborated on?

Dutch daily Het Parool is also critical on the play: here.

The Theaterkrant wrote a positive review: here.

The Dutch daily NRC also wrote a more positive review than De Volkskrant or Het Parool or Trouw; here.

Including the line (translated):

Later in his life he, like [Dutch poet Herman] Gorter, made the switch to socialist poetry and became a mouthpiece for Stalin.

The NRC is incorrect in this. Mayakovsky became a socialist before he became a poet, and wanted to make socialist art right from the beginning. While Dutch Gorter became a poet first, and a socialist later. Both Gorter and Mayakovsky were not ‘mouthpieces for Stalin’. Probably, the reviewer bases that mistakenly on the final part of the play. Then, Dik Boutkan in his Mayakovsky role arises from the dead, and speaks about the situation now in 2017. He attacks the restoration of capitalism in Russia; and claims a strongman like ‘the great Stalin’ is needed to redress that. Giving the wrong impression that the second part of that final speech is a logical consequence of the first part.

British disabled punk rocker Penny Pepper interviewed


This video from Britain says about itself:

Morning Stories | Penny Pepper On The Problem With ‘Sensible’ Shoes

24 August 2015

Penny Pepper, a disabled writer, talks about rebelling against the “what’s best” rhetoric when it comes to fashion.

By Felicity Collier in Britain:

‘The world was a liar and I had too much to say to listen to its prejudice’

Thursday 23rd November 2017

Self-confessed saucepot PENNY PEPPER talks to Felicity Collier about the life experiences informing her recently published memoir

JUST before she starts her reading in a Camden Town pub from her memoirs First in the World Somewhere, Penny Pepper is abuzz with anecdotes from her punk youth, be they striking up a rapport with Morrissey or performing gigs in front of Diane Abbott.

A writer and disabled-rights activist, she instigated change in the 1980s by firing off a letter to music magazine Jamming! calling for equal access to gig venues.

The reaction she stirred led to her meeting her first love, forming a band, and recognition that, if punk is about “breaking down barriers,” that must include disability rights.

Her memoirs follow Penny’s childhood and adolescence in the Chilterns where she was keen to escape her lot with an abusive stepfather and a home life she describes as “a prison, hell.”

She savoured times when there was enough money for batteries to power her radio so she could listen to John Peel (“an absolute saviour”) and, when she first heard The Smiths, she immediately bought “everything they had breathed on.”

Feeling represented by Morrissey’s outsider lyrics, Penny wrote to him “endlessly” and was rewarded with a vinyl copy of Barbarism Begins at Home.

Another pivotal moment was watching Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols on TV setting the tone for a new youth movement.

Rejecting “the designated life of the cripple,” and the restrictive attitudes from health professionals, she was determined not to live a life ruled by Still’s disease, the arthritic condition which affects her joints and requires her to use a wheelchair

Her dream of living an independent life in London was granted when Ken Livingstone, then Greater London Council leader, acted on a letter she wrote. “Letter writing was my escape, my way of fighting back in the world,” she tells me. “The power of my words took me somewhere.”

Cue letters to the Greenham Common women, membership of CND and Rock against Racism, all provoked by “hating Thatcher and everything she stood for.”

She moved in with her partner-in-crime Tamsin — also disabled — and the pair studied, partied and made music together.

“We didn’t think we shouldn’t do what other people do in their twenties,” she says, recalling how at that time disabled people lived with their parents or in a care home. She was intent on avoiding “incarceration” and the sense that her destiny was set in stone was vehemently rejected when she decided to write.

But it took a long time for her to realise that she had “as much right as anyone else” to tell her story. As with writing, so it was with having a sexual identity as a disabled person. She published a pamphlet on the subject and wrote erotic fiction and her candid and vivid memoirs are excellent testament to her tackling ignorance and discrimination.

As a musician, record company executives “leered” over her breasts, she recalls, but took umbrage at her wheelchair. It was an awakening — being made to feel like she could not belong or be sexy because she used a wheelchair and had arthritis. “I decided the world was a liar and I had far too much to say to listen to its prejudice.”

Outrageously funny and brilliantly defiant, Penny is now in her fifties and she has an enduring identification with anarchism, defining it as mutual aid that involves people who are “programmed to help each other to survive rather than the survival of the fittest that capitalism thrives on.”

Yet she’s been a socialist all her life and has a lot of hope for Jeremy Corbyn. Penny encountered Corbyn in the summer while fundraising and he has supported her disability campaign group Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC).

“He’s definitely captured the imagination of people — he’s made politics fresh. You can’t undo the passion he’s stirred. For the many, not the few!” she chortles.

Penny and her partner were among the first to have a home help in their own flat. She refused to be placed in a care home in an impersonal system, instead demanding independence in her youth.

But there was a battle to have disabled access fitted to the front door when she was forced to move house and the couple encountered fierce opposition from neighbours.

These days, she works with DPAC in its campaigns against the government’s dismantling of social care, including the fight to preserve the Independent Living Fund that enables disabled people to live independently in their own homes, with visiting personal assistants.

But she is not, she says, “vulnerable” and it’s a word she hates. “It’s really abused. I’m no more vulnerable than anyone else, unless my social care is threatened.”

Of government cuts, she says: “We’re talking about basic equalities — being able to sleep and not in your own pee.” It’s a shocking testament to today’s government because, as she points out, Thatcher ignored disabled people, “but she gave us benefits.”

First in the World Somewhere is available from Unbound, unbound.com. Penny is appearing in Brighton tonight at New Writing South, 9 Jew Street. British Sign Language-interpreted.

British author Michael Rosen interviewed


This video from Britain says about itself:

The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass – DAY 12 – Kids’ Poems and Stories With Michael Rosen

When we hear how Till Owlyglass cured a small boy’s constipation, and how he taught a merchant to pack eggs tightly. Till Owlyglass (Till Eulenspiegel) is a boy who was special from the day he was baptised three times. But not in a good way. Not in a way his parents liked. He was always in trouble for his rudeness and practical jokes, and grew up to be the most outrageous trickster in Germany. Everyone told stories about him – and they still do five centuries later.

By Louise Raw in Britain:

‘I used to think Marx’s or Lenin’s books said communists must go camping’

Saturday 18th November 2017

MICHAEL ROSEN talks to the Star about his communist parents, his childhood, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and art.

I DON’T associate with many creative power couples. The Beckhams call, but there are only so many hours in the day. I’d be surprised, though, if they came much more productive or interesting than Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams.

Williams, a radio producer and film-maker, is curating the current art exhibition at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery, along with her husband. It centres on the life and work of the extraordinary Albert Turpin: window cleaner, firefighter, anti-fascist and post-war mayor of Bethnal Green.

Turpin was a member of the East London group of working-class male and female artists, who painted life as they saw it in a way that was ground-breaking.

As well as the paintings, the exhibition displays Turpin’s sketch books — a pencil drawing of Mother, Asleep is breathtakingly tender — and his scrap books, which show how crucial politics were to him; he carefully preserved cuttings detailing the rise of fascism in the 1930s East End and the push-back from men and women like himself.

Williams has also created the show’s soundscape — an aural tapestry of voices and sounds evoking Turpin’s East London.

She tells me she has a long fascination with what the Germans call Strassenrausch — street clamour — and is often to be found around London, happily recording all its manifestations.

She and Rosen collaborated on the 2011 film Under the Cranes, set in Hackney, which uses both sound and image to capture the atmosphere of the place.

Merging words from a voice play by Rosen with geo-history and the testimony of migrants to the area from Bangladesh, Ghana and the Congo, it’s both dreamlike and politically forceful, showing us 1930s street fights with fascists and raising urgent questions about the treatment of migrants, regeneration and “gentrification.”

Rosen’s new memoir, So They Call You Pisher! (a Yiddish expression meaning “What’s the worst that could happen?”) is also redolent with the presence of the past.

The absences of Jewish relatives, there before the war then just gone, and of Rosen’s elder brother Alan, who died in infancy and whose existence Rosen discovered by chance only when he was 10, were palpable in his childhood. His mother Connie never spoke Alan’s name to him or acknowledged that she knew he knew about him. That silence must have reverberated.

Rosen is proudly the child of this intriguing, intellectually engaged couple. He and Williams come today from a meeting on education, and Rosen’s mother and father, both teachers, developed separate reputations as educational theorists.

Williams has to rush off to finish a blog as well as be ready for their 12-year-old’s return from school and, after we talk, Rosen is headed to Brighton for a publicity event for Pisher! and to meet an old friend — poet, legendary activist and CP member Len Goldman, now a mere 101 years old.

But the former Children’s Laureate still submits graciously to what must be a strikingly unprofessional interview in his publicity round (proper journalists don’t rant intemperately about politics, I think, or fail to make comprehensible notes).

Tremendously good company, Rosen is interested in everything and has read everything (probably twice), but wears his knowledge lightly, with no detectable pomposity.

His warmth and enthusiasm are palpable in his work, and key to the huge popularity of his children’s writing. He was one of the first poets not simply to draw on his childhood experiences for his poems, but recount them in words children could understand, and would use.

He’s modest and honest about the creation of his blockbusting kids’ book We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. It is based on an US folk song he used to perform live and his editor commissioned the magical illustrations by artist Helen Oxenbury.

Impossible as it is now to imagine the book without them, Rosen couldn’t at first see how drawings and text would combine, but trusted the process. It was only feedback from young readers down the years which made him fully appreciate what he and Oxenbury had created.

Men of letters tend not to admit to either their strokes of luck or cock-ups along the way, preferring to imply all was planned with godlike genius — not so Rosen.

In his memoir, he shares awkward moments like the sketch he devised at college in Oxford, intended to mock capitalism, which instead appeared to lampoon a flat-capped worker and the forthright consternation of his father on seeing it.

There was also a youthful essay he felt rather brilliantly skewered Jonathan Swift, until his tutor gently pointed out that Swift’s irony had gone soaring over his head: “I had been a knakke (‘know-all’), and thought I could rumble Swift… You can never rumble Swift,” he says. This is something of a relief, given the otherwise imposing scale and scope of Rosen’s achievements.

As well as the memoir, he has a collection of political poetry, Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio, and a biographical work on Emile Zola’s exile in England out this year alone. He presents the Radio 4 stalwart Word of Mouth and has advised the government on literature and literacy.

When his 18-year-old son Eddie, whom Rosen has called the hub of the family, died suddenly from a strain of meningitis, Rosen managed to parlay desolation into a campaign to add a vaccine to the childhood immunisation schedule and a book which helps children deal with grief.

Much of his art is for more than art’s sake, contributing something to the greater good or focusing on those who have, such as Turpin, who confronted British fascists head on, or Zola, who made his own life difficult by challenging anti-semitism at the highest level over the Dreyfus Affair.

He is very much a public artist, in and of the world, not sequestered in a study but out here with the rest of us, worrying about inequality and discombobulated by Brexit. As he’s written, “Poetry can stick up for the weak or it can mock the mighty; it can glorify our rulers or it can dissect them. You choose.”

Rosen’s father Harold joined the Young Communist League in 1935 and there met Rosen’s mother Connie Isakofsky.

In 1936, the young couple were at the battle of Cable Street; Connie would later work in the typing pool of the Daily Worker, the forerunner of the Morning Star.

Rosen’s childhood was shaped by their politics. His memoir recalls the Tuesday evening routine in his childhood home. He writes: “Now, boys, off you go to bed. We’ve got a party branch meeting.”

“Len Goldman himself was a regular attendee. My father said [he] was terrific’ but sometimes, no-one came.

“Even so, my parents still held their branch meeting. We sat on the stairs and they went into the front room and shut the door.

“I’ve often wondered how those particular meetings went…”

The young Michael copped some flak, too, for his and his parents’ views. A teacher he admired looked sideways at the May Day badge on Rosen’s school blazer and sneered: “Oh. We’re communists, are we?”

Bemused, he told his mum about the incident: “She looked into the distance for a moment and then glanced down at my shoes. She gasped. ‘Look at your shoes. You haven’t polished them. They’re going to think communists are people who don’t polish their shoes’.”

Childhood for the Rosen boys also involved Communist Party camping holidays. “No-one in my school went camping…

“Somewhere in one of those books by Karl Marx or VI Lenin on our shelves, I used to think, it must say communists go camping.”

Camps in France began a life-long love affair between Rosen and France and Frenchness (this has served him well: his page-turner of a book on Emile’s exile to England is all the more so because of Rosen’s translations of Zola’s letters home. It’s compelling to see the great author and political crusader moaning about English cooking — to both his wife and his mistress).

Rosen’s parents left the CP in 1957 though never disengaged from socialist politics.

I ask Rosen how they responded to the anti-semitism they inevitably encountered as a Jewish couple. He tells me they had very different approaches.

His father Harold let insults glance off him, and rather enjoyed baiting anti-semites. From his mother, however, he saw occasional manifestations of the pain and anger absorbing prejudice had caused her, as on the occasion she and Harold were lambasted, post-Hungary, for “betraying the working classes” with their CP membership. “Who else” she asked her accuser, “was going to stick up for us?”

Rosen’s father Harold comes across as formidable in the book, if not to his son, certainly too others; one girlfriend thought him something of an intellectual “ogre.”

I ask Williams how she got on with her late father-in-law. “Very well,” she tells me, though his primary relationship was always with Michael and she bonded with him initially over their shared interest in what made Rosen Junior tick. Through Harold’s reminiscences, she came to know the boy and young man who became her husband (‘It was a conspiracy!” chips in Michael).

I tell Rosen I found his mother a more mysterious presence in the book — harder to grasp. This isn’t a failure of characterisation, though, but deliberate.

Rosen found her that way too and realises that her maternal role was perhaps at the heart of that. The “comforts of philosophy” had to cede to day-to-day-life concerns about what to do about the corned beef, for example, of which she had a cupboard full when there was a health scare about it. Connie’s response was typically gnomic, keeping the tins, but not opening them until the panic was over.

After his mother’s death, Rosen came upon a piece of her autobiographical writing about her girlhood and felt he encountered a woman he didn’t quite know, with thoughts and feelings he hadn’t heard her express.

“I think that she must have felt there wasn’t the space in our home for her to say those things … She wasn’t given (or she didn’t take?) the space for that kind of reflection … the airwaves were taken up by Harold, me and Brian,” he writes. Even in a loving, fairly egalitarian household, corned beef can stifle a woman.

Connie really found herself, Rosen says, when she began to study educational theory in earnest and became known in her own right. She gave a series of morning talks on the BBC and suddenly people were coming to the house not for Harold but to talk to Connie.

I ask him if any of her writing is available now and he tells me he’s going to collate them, as he has his father’s.

Success has not steered Rosen’s own politics to the right. He contributed in 2015 to the e-book Poems for Corbyn.

How does he think Labour is doing now? He remains supportive of Corbyn but says he’s worried by signs Labour might “wobble” on immigration. He’s rightly adamant that the Left should always oppose protectionist arguments, such a dangerously slippery slope.

Labour should just tell the truth loudly and clearly. He thinks migration is and has always been a huge benefit to this country.

And Brexit? He is, he says, a “militant abstainer.” He sees the whole thing as an argument between sections of capital in which socialists wouldn’t involve themselves. “Corbyn should say one thing — that our concern is just jobs, conditions and services. Beyond that, let them fight it out.”

He uses the rather good analogy of of a boxing ring. All the lights and focus are on the two fighters in battling it out, but that’s not where the real game is. Surrounding the ring, quiet in the dark, sit the real players — the money and the men and women whose only interest is profit and who will always try to fix the match to their advantage.

He adds that he knows Labour is preparing for power and trying to cover all bases, that, inevitably the day after a Labour victory, billions will be wiped off the economy and the gloves will really be off. If we think the Establishment has gone after Corbyn before, we’ll see that was nothing, he says.

“[The capitalists elite] doesn’t care who’s in charge, as long as it’s a safe pair of hands for capital and its interests. Blair was fine, Corbyn is not.”

Our response, he says, must be to refuse to be panicked and simply call out the false narrative of the Establishment and media. “We should constantly ask them to prove it, to show us one immigrant who caused the flight of capital that has really rocked the economy, one immigrant who caused Dagenham.

“We should question what they mean when they say it’s ‘bad for the economy’. What is our economy? It’s a capitalist system and we have to constantly remind people of that.”

Would Rosen act as adviser to the Corbyn camp, if asked? Probably, he says, though on an independent basis. He is not a Labour Party member. Had he joined during Corbyn’s early term, he thinks he would have been used as a “scalp” in the same way Mark Steel was and refused membership.

He doesn’t agree, however, with my gloomy assessment that the Right has won the battle of language and thought.

Labour’s slogan, For the many not the few, he points out, is quite brilliant in its simplicity, Marx in a sentence, which has succeeded in turning the debate.

As we wrap up, I tell him that, although his career is inspiring in its refusal to accept limits (why “just” be a poet when you can also write biography, memoirs, plays?), it also seems impossible to emulate today.

Young people wanting a broad artistic career are often told they must “settle down” and specialise. I expect Rosen to agree that his trajectory would be hard to emulate, but, cheeringly, he’s having none of that. He doesn’t accept its uniqueness. “Look at the comedians who act, write and so on.”

He also thinks it would be entirely possible to do today. “I lived on soup for a long while and had one pair of trousers and one pair of shoes, but you can do it.” The key, he says, is to take projects that really interest you, regardless as far as possible of the money, because they will usually lead somewhere interesting.

Surely it’s a tougher world now, though, with arts cuts and austerity? Rosen points out that there are also the advantages of the internet and social media, allowing artists to market themselves more effectively than before. He offers some useful pointers. Keep your website clear and up-to-date, make it obvious what skills you offer and easy to book and contact you.

It’s nice to hear. Too often, those who have “made it” seem more interested in pulling up the ladder after them than helping others climb it.

Rosen’s career is also an illustration of Marx’s observation that most people possess a wide range of interests and abilities which they would enrich over their lives if capitalism wasn’t so stultifying limiting for the “cogs” in its machine.

In the awkward moment where you’ve said goodbye then realise you’re going in the same direction, Rosen has to walk with me to the station.

I feel sorry for him but he’s typically nice about it, and regales me with stories of treatment for his ongoing hip problem which necessitates “having my bum electrocuted, basically.” You wouldn’t, I imagine, have got this from Wordsworth, I ask.

At the last minute, I remember I wanted to ask him about an unusual facet of his autobiographical writing. I’d noticed he rarely tells the reader what the people in his life look like. Is this a deliberate strategy to make us focus on their personalities and voices alone?

Rosen thinks for a second, then says: “I suppose I’m just not very good at all that…” I raise an eyebrow: that seems unlikely for a writer of his calibre. “And I suppose it’s because when I went to school at Watford Boys, I got a lot of negative comments. I was told I looked weird. I think it’s because I looked Jewish, probably.”

As a result, he feels uncomfortable focussing on people’s appearances, to the extent that he feels guilty about having described someone several times as bald. “But he was bald,” I ask. “Yes, but I still feel bad about it.”

Michael Rosen is a poet, biographer, memoirist, film-maker and art curator.

Emma-Louise Williams and Michael Rosen’s free exhibition The Working Artist: The East London Group is on at the Nunnery Gallery until December 17. Entrance is free. For more informatiob visit: bowarts.org.

Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky


This is a video of Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky reciting a poem.

By Peter Cardwell in Britain:

The Revolutionary

Saturday 4th November 2017

A poem for Mayakovsky

A practitioner of Russian roulette,
Mayakovsky sits in a workaday jacket,
breast-pocket full of pens, gauge, pencil

looking like everything but a sad poet
but more what he is every day —
shaven-headed and fully employed.

So far, no bullet has entered his brain —
the lonely man he is will write
his epic poem, give heart to other Russians.

And even though Stalin thinks he is a bore,
his work will be read by the lettered —
bread and iron have made him speak.