Thursday, 25 March 2010

Going to Moscow for the World Gymnastics Championships, November 1981


I had been reporting on gymnastics events for a variety of magazines since 1975, and was keen to visit the Soviet Union for a major tournament. When I heard the Americans would be boycottting the 1980 Moscow Olympics, I thought I might stand a good chance, so I wrote a request for a press pass, got a colleague to translate it into Russian, posted it off and waited. Some weeks later I got home to find the post office had left me a docket telling me that they had a registered letter from Moscow awaiting collection. "It's my tickets!" I thought. I charged down full of excitement and was handed a suspiciously thin envelope, which proved to contain a single rather grubbily-photocopied sheet of paper informing me that I had applied to the wrong place. Not only must this item have cost a fortune to send by registered post all the way from Moscow; it probably got me on some M15 list of suspects. Things weren't much better when later that year I applied to attend a tournament in East Berlin. In this case I did receive a very friendly invitation; the only drawback being that my the time it reached me, the event had already finished. A check of the dates on the letterhead and the postmark suggested it had sat on someone's desk for a whole month before being posted, and the fact that it was addressed to "Stoke-on-Trent, USA probably didn't help. There was less visible co-operation when I applied to the organisers of the World Student Games in Bucharest: in fact I received no reply at all; but a German friend who attended the tournament informed me that the Roamanians had actually set up facilities for me in the press centre, and I should have gone. I protested that they hadn't bothered to let me know. "Oh, the Romanians never tell you anything!" he replied. "You just have to turn up!"

However, in 1981 I did receive tickets for the World Gymnastics Championships in Moscow. The next problem was getting a visa. When there was still no sign of mine a week before the start, I rang up the travel agent, who told me that patience was needed and I shouldn't start to panic until 24 hours before the flight: such delays were standard for Soviet bureaucracy. "And I tell you, it's getting worse!" he exclaimed, "And Reagan's afraid of these people invading us!" I had visions of a mechanised offensive into Central Europe having to be postponed for lack of visas. But his advice proved right, and my documents duly arrived a whole three days before departure.

I was the only person in our party to be searched at customs on the way in. The official read through my address book and notebook, leafed through my wallet, and carefull scrutinised the crushed Remembrance Day poppies, old tickets and screwed-up sweet papers that he found in my coat pockets and the bottom of my bag. having failed to find anything interesting, he then asked, "Vy have you come?"
"I've come to see the gymnastics world championships", I explained (it said this on my visa anyway)
"I sink you are too late; it has finished".
"No it hasn't: it's going on till Sunday!"
Since I had avoided this little trap, he lasped into apathy and let me through.

A fellow-enthusiast, Maurice Knight from Birmingham, then caused enormous confusion at passport control. For a start, he had a joint passport but had come without his wife, so he had to explain why he had left her at home. The following dialoguethen took place:-
"Your name is Maurice Kerr-niggt?"
"No, my name is Maurice Knight!"
"Your name is Maurice Kerr-niggt". This time it was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I know it's spelt like that, bit actually it's pronounced Knight"
"Your name is Maurice Kerr-niggt".
Voice from the back of the queue, "For heaven's sake, Maurice, tell her you're called Kerr-niggt or we'll be here all day!"
"Oh all right then; my name is Maurice Kerr-niggt"
"Go through!" Honour was satisfied: the foreigner had done as he was told.

When we boarded the bus to our hotel, we were told that the first gymnastics we wouldbe attending would be the women's finals the next day. Maurice and i immediately protested: what about the men's tournament that evening? We had been promised entry to all events! Elena, our guide, was sympathetic but firm: she was very sorry, but it was impossible; no tickets were left. We were thus not in a very good mood when we reached the hotel, where we found another British party about to leave for the stadium. Yes, they also had been told there were no tickets, but when they complained sufficiently some had materialised. So Maurice and I approached their guide and explained the position. Within a couple of minutes she had managed to locate two spare tickets, so Maurice and I abandoned our luggage at reception and went off to the stadium, and the competition we watched was so exciting we wouldn't have missed it for anything: Korolyev just sneaked ahead of Bogdan Makuts on the very last piece of apparatus. The next day a very tiny and very young girl called Bicherova took the women's title ahead of my favourite gymnast, Maria Filatova. But I'll describe the gymnastics some other time.

The tournament was in many ways not well organised. The Russians were incapable of producing a printed programme for the spectators, who thus had nothing to tell them what was happening next, or who was wearing what number, let alone having nowhere to keep the scores, so at the close few had any notion of the result until the parade of the medal-winners. A few privileged officials were given printed scoresheets at the close, which I had to cadge and then spend hours copying scores out by hand. Even this was not as easy as it sounds, since the names had been translated into Cyrillic script and then back again, by someone whose command of English was distinctly shaky, with the surnames first. The resutlts were often comic. Who in the British team were Prais Heili, Iang Liza, Vezerstoun Cheril and Deivis Dzheffri? (Hayley Price, Lisa Young, Cheryl Weatherstone and Jeffrey Davis). Other nationalities were just as bad, and for the Chinese, just to be different, the surnames had been put last. Even the entry tickets were substandard: whole blocks were printed on single sheet of cheap paper without perforations, and then clumsily and inaccurately torn off one by one.

Moscow in Novemberis cold. during the day the temperature may creep up to above zero, and the sunlight glitters on the gilded domes of the Kremlin cathedrals, but there is a bitter chill in the air when the wind blows and everyone has to wrap up well. The ground is iron-hard, there are flurries of snow, and ice begins to float on the river. It was at this precise time, forty years before our visit, that Hitler's armies ground to a halt on the Sparrow Hills within sight of the city and suffered astronomical casualties as they tried to dig in for winter.

Our hotel was a modern one, opposite the Park of Economic Achievement, looking out on a monument to Soviet astronuats that consisted of a great curved rocket-trail looking like a bronze ski-slope. The hotel food wasn't bad, but when two British businessmen at our table asked for champagne they were told there wasn't any. Since several bottles were promonent on other tables this wasn't very convincing, and it took considerable badgering before someone looking like a manager appeared and contrived to locate a couple of bottles in quick order. (It was at this same hotel three years later that I had a surreal experience involving the crockery, which was rather crude and often chipped. Living as I did in Stoke-on-Trent, the world centre of china-ware, I performed the ritual of the "upside-down club": turning a plate over to find where it was made. This proved to be somewhere in East Germany, and the trade name, amazingly, was "Colditz"! In next to no time, everyone in the room was turning over their plates too and exclaiming, "Ooh, so it is!" The staff, of course, had no idea what the joke was, and when we came down for our next meal we found our party had been screened off from the everybody else. "People complained about the noise", we were told.

Between he hotel and the stadium was a large shoe-shop. Every time we drove past on our coach, even late in the evening, there was always a long queue outside, spilling down the pavement. Eventually one of our party asked Elena the guide, "Why are all those people always queuing outside that shop?" Without batting an eyelid she replied, "It is because they have plenty of time". This was such a splendid answer that none of us could think of any riposte. And in a sense she was speaking the truth, because with goods coming into the shops so irregularly, any Muscovite who saw a queue would be advised to join it, and find out what was on sale later. (See appendix: Russian jokes) There was also a functioning Orthodox Christian church close to the hotel, with attractive bright blue onion-domes flecked with gold stars. I looked in once, to see old ladies bowing and scraping and crossing themselves before the icons: they seemed to constitute the entire congregation. The priest looked exactly like Rasputin in films.

We were taken round the usual tourist sites each morning before going to the stadium. I didn't bother to visit Lenin in his tomb (I had seen him on a previous visit: we thought he was a waxwork), but I did go to St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. It was much brighter externally than I remembered: perhaps it had been repainted for the 1980 Olympics. All eight of the miniature domes surrounding the central tower were different, and beneath each was a separate chapel, some being scarcely bigger than chapels. Old ladies sat inside them, swathed in blankets against the cold and lookingup from their knitting to shout "Don't touch the icons!" at the tourists. There was a guided tour of the Kremlin, with its splendid cathedrals, plus the Tsar's bell (so big that it could never be hung) and the Tsar's cannon (so big that it could never be fired - something very Russian about these!). In the Treasury was a fine collection of Sevres porcelain. I told Elena that, coming as I did from Stoke, I was interested in ceramics. She knew about Wedgwood, and said how much she liked the blue-and-white jasper ware. I told her it was still being made. "Can anyone buy it?" she asked. I felt like telling her that it wasn't reserved for high officials of the ruling party, if that was what she meant. I asked if she would like me to send her a small piece, but she was most insistent that I shouldn't. Elena was also puzzled by the fact that I owned my own house. "How can you have your own house when you're not married?" she asked. She still had to share a flat withher parents, despite being a university graduate.

It goes without saying that we were approached on the street by locals wanting to change money or buy our clothes. A group of us met a bunch of young Muscovites headed by a youth with blond-dyed hair, a black leather jacket and an acid burn down his cheek. "You guys got any shoes you wanna sell?" he asked, with an accent suggesting he had learnt his English from old James Cagney movies. One of the American coaches described to me how he was engaged in selling his jeans to a taxi-driver, the way one does, and was haggling about the price, when the taxi-driver had a bright idea. "If you accept my price", he said, "I will give you a nice Polish girl!" "Look, mate", replied the American, by his own account, "I don't want to go home with something I can't wash off!" The taxi driver deduced from this that here was a tough bargainer. "If you don't like that", he riposted, "then I will give you a nice Russian girl!" This would appear to tell us something about he relative status of the two races. "And do you know how much we were arguing about?" the American told me, "Two bucks! He was going to give me a girl for two lousy bucks!"

I never had an experience to match this, but I remembered how on a school visit some years earlier, one of the boys wanted to go swimming. There was in those days a vast open-air swimming pool in the middle of Moscow (it isn't there any more: see footnote), and the man in charge of the party taught him the Russian for "swimming pool" and told him to take a taxi. What happened was that the boy instantly forgot the Russian for "swimming pool", so instead waved his towel and bathing trunks at the taxi driver; who promptly made him an offer for them; and so instead of swimming he went back to the hotel and spent his gains on vodka. In fact there wasn't much point in selling clothes,or in changing money on the black market, since there were special shops called "berioskas" which only accepted foreign currency, and in any case, when we returned to the airport we had to account for all the roubles in our possession and then change them back at iniquitous rates.

An hour into the flight, the pilot announced we were leaving Soviet airspace. A mighty cheer went up from the passengers, and two businessmen, fuelled by alcohol, started a game of cricket in the central aisle. But despite all the nonsense, none of us would regret our trip to Moscow.

Footnote 1: the swimming pool. There was in the centre of Moscow an enormous 19th-century cathedral, dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. It was demolished under Stalin, with the intention of building a grandiose Palace of the Soviets in its place, but in the end the site became a swimming pool. After the collapse of communism, the swimming pool went and the cathedral was rebuilt. A sign of changing priorities?

Footnote 2: a joke from late in the Soviet era. Ivan Ivanovich hears a rumour that a local shop has sausage for sale,and decides to go and buy some. "Don't be silly!" his wife tells him, "Even if they had any, they'll be out of it before you can get there!" Nevertheless Ivan goes. There is a very long queue already formed at the shop, and long before Ivan can reach the front a man comes out and announces that the sausage has all been sold. Ivan is furious. "It's a disgrace!" he shouts, "I've worked all my life for this country, and now I can't get any sausage! Our government's useless!" A large man comes up to him and says, "Comrade, calm down! Think of what would have happened in the old days if you'd spoken like that!" (he points a finger at Ivan's head and says "Bang!") "So calm down and go home!" When Ivan gets home his wife asks, "Well, was I right? Are they out of sausage?" "It's worse than that", Ivan tells her, "They're even out of bullets!"

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Some moral themes in the books of J.R.R. Tolkien

I shall be examining some of the underlying moral and ethical ideas developed by Tolkien in the "Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings"; particularly his doctrines of sin and evil, of creation, and of the Earthly Paradise.

Tolkien was first and foremost a sincere and very conservative Roman Catholic. His letters show that he was always concerned when friends suggested that the ideas put forward in his novels were inconsistent with Catholic beliefs. His imaginary world was monotheistic: the Valar, who are invoked by Elves and men, are actually more akin to angels rather than gods. Their powers may be enormous, but limited, as is their knowledge, and they are capable of making mistakes and being outwitted: a few, like Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman, may even fall into sin. In the "Silmarillion" they serve the sole creator-god, Iluvatar, who has delegated to them the day-to-day running of the world. After the Creation, Iluvatar has only directly intervened in the world once (the destruction of Numenor), though there are hints that covert divine intervention might have occurred several times, in the form of "fate", chance or coincidence, to help the cause of right. It is not clear what power might be responsible. Gandalf attempts to explain this to Frodo early on in "The Lord of the Rings", with reference to Bilbo's finding of the ring. Equally, there is a certain amount of foreknowledge of the future granted to the Valar, to Elves and even to some men. But neither fate nor foreknowledge implies predestination: all thinking creatures have free will and perform their actions voluntarily, not compelled by fate.

All sin is committed by free will, and no creature is fated to be evil by nature or essence. (Tolkien had problems explaining the nature of the orcs to Catholic correspondents, who argued that the idea of a thinking but irredeemably evil race was unscriptural and heretical - see footnote). Tolkien sees the principal sin as a blend of pride, ambition, covetousness and desire for power over others, lusting after glory, wealth and domination, and going against the will of God by desiring things to which we are not entitled. Here Tolkien's deep conservatism comes in. He makes plain that the desires and ambitions of all creatures ought to be limited to what is appropriate to their kind and to their station in life; to seek after more is wrong, and will lead to evil consequences if pursued - for instance, the Numenorians' lust for immortality. No creature, not even a Vala, has the right to demand whatever it wants; God has laid down what is suitable, and this should not be exceeded. This is not a "modern" concept.

Bearing this in mind, we can see why both the "Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" centre upon objects which carry almost irresistible temptation to greed and ambition beyond the proper limits. The Silmarils tempt because of their beauty, and greed to regain them lead to the Elves forsaking Valinor against the commands of the Valar, just as they had already tempted Morgoth. The Silmarils burn the hands of those not entitled to possess them, but are harmless to those who do have that right (for instance, Beren). The Ring is a much more subtle concept: it tempts by the desire to use its power in doing good, though in fact all its works will turn to evil (see footnote). For this reason no-one, not even a Vala, should attempt to possess it atall. (Similarly, Aragorn is able to master the Palantir because he has a right to it: those without this right are unable to control it).

No-one is bad by nature. The wicked characters have succumbed to the temptations of power and greed to the extent of degenerating into personalities of mere unrestrained appetite; most notably Morgoth and Sauron, and the orcs. The good characters manage to resist the temptations placed in their path by the Ring: Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel, Faramir, Sam. The ambivalent characters have yielded, or are in the process of yielding: Saruman, Gollum, Boromir. Even Frodo succumbs to temptation at the last gasp: he is unable to destroy the Ring when he reaches Mount Doom, and is saved only by "chance" in the unlikely form of Gollum. As Tolkien pointed out in letters to his admirers, Frodo's failure should have been foreseen: he was too small a personality to resist the Ring indefinitely, and his real heroism was that he had managed to hold out for so long.

Tolkien's notions of the Earthly Paradise and of creativity stem from his deep religious conservatism. To such an outlook, the ability to create good and beautiful things comes only from God, not from any human agency, and since man is further from God than in the past, his works have inevitably declined and become inferior. The Golden Age was in the past and cannot be regained. This viewpoint is absolutely at odds with progressive or socialist ideologies, which are dominated by the notion of progress, and strive towards the creation of a Golden Age at some time in the future. (We shall look at Tolkien's view of progress later)

The theme of a lost Earthly Paradise is very strong in Tolkien's works, deriving from the Christian doctrine of the Garden of Eden. Originally all thinking creatures were given an earthly paradise appropriate to their kind as a gift from above, but most of them have lost it by falling into sin. Since this fall, they have spent their energies in an attempt to reconstruct that paradise by their own efforts, always ultimately managing only to produce feeble and unsatisfactory imitations.

The earthly paradise of the Elves was in Valinor, the Undying Land, from which they exiled themselves against the advice of the Valar in a futile attempt to regain the Silmarils from Morgoth. But the Elves are not totally fallen; at the end of the First Age they are permitted to return to Valinor. Some, however, choose to remain in exile; perhaps from a desire to do good in Middle Earth, perhaps through obstinacy and pride. In Middle Earth the Elves construct imitations of Valinor, such as Gondolin, Lorien and Rivendell, but these are only ever imitations, they have no permanence and are subject to decay, and by the end of the Third Age they are sustained only by the power of the Three Rings. At the end, even the elven-leaves of Lorien wither once Galadriel has gone: they have no natural endurance.

Men had their earthly paradise in Numenor, which was destroyed when their pride and ambition led them to a violent attempt to win immortality. Gondor was then built as an imitation of Numenor, but was inevitably inferior, subject to the decay of all things in Middle-Earth and doomed to decline. Similarly, the superior Numenorian race declined as its blood was mingled with that of "lesser men" (which sounds an unpleasantly Nazi doctrine nowadays; but Tolkien was much too old-fashioned to be a Nazi sympathiser, and he personally detested Hitler and everything he stood for).

The Dwarves' earthly paradise was Moria: once again, a place appropriate for their kind. They lost it through greed, when their delving disturbed the Balrog, and although Moria was still geographically within reach, the Dwarves cannot return there. Erebor became their substitute; once again, not as good, and menaced by orcs and dragons.

A few creatures retain still retain their earthly paradises. The Ents still have Fangorn forest, but it has become wholly sterile, for the Entwives have disappeared. The Hobbits too still have theirs, the Shire; a bucolic idyll of pre-industrial England without the poverty and class oppression of the real thing; and they only narrowly avoid losing it through their own characteristic faults: apathy and sloth.

All attempts to reconstruct the earthly paradise must fail because of Tolkien's peculiar doctrine of creativity. He sees the ability to create objects of beauty and power as coming from God; finite and limited in all lesser beings, and incapable of being improved. It is as if an artist, by having painted a single great picture, has permanently exhausted his talents to such an extent that he could never again achieve any work of such quality. No-one is able to increase his skill or build on past experience. Tolkien's world is full of great works of the past which cannot be reproduced. The Valar cannot remake the Two Trees. Feanor cannot make any more Silmarils. No-one can make any more Palantiri. The finest swords were forged in the very distant past, and Gimli comments that the new stonework of Minas Tirith is inferior to the old. It is a story of all-round decline. Even Sauron is not as strong as he once was, for he cannot make another Ring.

This is all a part of Tolkien's pessimistic conservatism, and is appropriate to his field of academic study. He was above all an expert in Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval English; of people, therefore, who lived surrounded by the ruined buildings and the traditions of the mighty men of olden times, which they knew they were unable to equal themselves. It is natural therefore that his fictional characters should also be looking backwards to times of lost greatness, and be always conscious of the decline since then.

Since the ability to create comes from God, it naturally follows that it is most diminished in those who have fallen into wickedness. They can only create by pouring their own innate power into their creations, thus diminishing themselves permanently. So even Sauron is not as strong as he once was; he created the Ring by filling it with his own innate power, thus weakening himself, and in consequence can never make another Ring. He was diminished further by the wreck of Numenor and his defeat at the end of the Second Age, and continues to diminish by pouring his evil will into inspiring his slaves, Nazgul, Orcs and so forth, who are lost and helpless without him. In any case, Sauron was always weaker than his former master Morgoth. Similarly Saruman, who was once greater than Gandalf, has diminished himself by turning to evil and attempting to build his own earthly paradise in Isengard (not surprisingly, Isengard is only a feeble copy of the Barad-dur, Sauron's great fortress). So everything in Middle-earth is in a state of decline, for both good and bad creatures, and even the status quo can only be maintained with difficulty, often needing artificial help, such as from the three elven-rings.

There is no technological progress at all, and never has been: all peoples have remained at the same technological level for thousands of years. It is of course a tradition of the imaginary worlds of fantasy literature that they remain stuck somewhere around the equivalent of the days of Edward I, both technologically and culturally, and Tolkien's world is no exception, though in historical terms this is actually most unlikely. Important inventions which in the real world appeared around the 15th century, such as gunpowder, the blast furnace and the printing press, show no sign of ever being discovered in Tolkien's world. It is hardly surprising that Tolkien, as a conservative Roman Catholic, would not acknowledge technological change as progress; rather stranger that he would not even acknowledge it as change. One would have expected that Sauron, Saruman or the dwarves would have been interested in seeking an improved technology, but even they have made no advance at all.

This is matched by an equal lack of any development in society, economics or politics. There is no mention of trade, and no form of government exists except arbitrary personal monarchy; no state ever develops any form of constitution, and even the Elvish rulers are often very irrational in the conduct of their kingdoms. Even warfare has remained unchanged for thousands of years: kings continue to lead their forces into battle with never any improvements in weaponry or tactics. Such a complete standstill is again highly unrealistic: no society is ever as static as this.

Any cultural advance is also alien to Tolkien's world. We are told that the Elves love beauty, but left in ignorance as to what forms this beauty takes. There is some elvish poetry and song (carefully covered by apologies for inadequate translation), but we are told practically nothing about elvish music, and nothing at all about elvish architecture, painting or sculpture: indeed, we do not even know if such things exist. The same can be said about dwarves and men. Furthermore, there is never any sign of the advancement of learning; which is a little surprising coming from a lifelong academic like Tolkien. There is only "lore"; no trace of the systematisation of knowledge, hardly any books, very little intellectual curiosity, and even basic history and geography are are in a poor state. Even the ruling elites are sadly ignorant of lands just a few days' march from their homes. Once again, the general atmosphere is that of the Dark Ages or early Middle Ages.

This was of course the period that Tolkien, the expert in Anglo-Saxon and Early English, felt most at home mentally; and so the characters which carry most conviction in his stories are those at the cultural level of Saxons or Vikings, such as the Edain and the Rohirrim. When he turns to societies that are supposed to be "higher" (the Elves or the Numenorians), he is far less convincing, because we are shown no evidence that their civilisations are in fact "higher", and the characters continue to behave like Vikings anyway. People who live in cities cannot behave like Vikings without causing endless disruption: think of the street gangs, whose code of behaviour is essentially a Viking one.

............................................................

Footnote 1: The Ring. Much of the story turns on the fact that the good characters cannot use the Ring, since it will inevitably turn all their works to evil. But how did anyone know this? The only person who had studied the rings deeply was Saruman. I toy with the fantasy that this was misinformation put around by Saruman, to deter anyone else from using the Ring before he could get his hands on it! Incidentally Tolkien, refuting the suggestion that the book was an allegory, with the Ring representing the atom bomb, said that had that been the case, he would have had Saruman use the Ring to defeat Sauron!

Footnote 2: The Orcs. Tolkien's Catholic friends were worried by the Orcs, maintaining that it was theologically wrong for any thinking creatures to be written off as irredeemably evil. Indeed, the Orcs are ultimately unconvincing. They are motivated purely by hatred, and hate other species only marginally more than they hate each other, and are restrained only by fear of a greater force. They love violence and plunder, and delight in pointless cruelty to their victims. But also they are not very good soldiers, they have little morale when in a tight corner, and frequently run away from danger; this cowardice making it unclear how they ever win battles save by sheer weight of numbers. Their ugliness and general foulness is constantly stressed, and even their language is described as "hideous" (it appears to be similar to Turkish). Indeed, so frightful are they that killing them is not merely morally acceptable, but even commendable: such appalling creatures really do not deserve to live. There can be little doubt that Tolkien derived his image of the orcs from wartime propaganda. This was the way German soldiers in the First World War were portrayed in the British popular press, and it was also the way Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jews. Similarly, a century earlier, James Gillray's cartoons portrayed the French revolutionaries and their sympathisers in Britain in exactly the same way: monstrously ugly, contemptible, and yet somehow constituting a serious threat that must be wiped out. In fact such sentiments are generally held by the civilians at home rather than by the front-line soldiers, who tend to have a much greater respect, or even sympathy, for their opponents. Has Tolkien simply yielded to the Hollywood-style temptation of making the "bad guys" personally disgusting? As an officer in the trenches at the battle of the Somme in 1916, he knew perfectly well that the Germans facing him were not Orcs but fellow human beings. But recognizing your enemies as fellow human beings will tend to cause you to question your right to kill them. Heinrich Himmler was annoyed to find that some of his S.S. officers actually liked the occasional Jew, and he rightly pointed out that the logical conclusion to be drawn from this was that Jews ought not be exterminated! Killing is so much easier to justify if your enemies are Orcs!
   

Recommended reading: "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien", edited by Humphrey Carpenter

Monday, 8 March 2010

A note on John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath"

"Grapes of Wrath" describes the emigration to California of the Joads; a family of farmers from Oklahoma in the early 1930s fleeing drought and land repossession; and the appallingly callous treatment that they meet on reaching the "promised land". Some notes to explain the context may be useful, especially to British readers.

Under the Homestead Act, any citizen could be entitled to 160 acres of "public land", by squatting on it and cultivating it for 5 years. This was intended to help fulfil Jefferson's dream of an America inhabited by sturdy independent yeoman farmers. By 1900, 80 million acres had been claimed this way, and the number of farmers had trebled. But increasingly the small farmers found they could not compete with the big operators, they fell into debt with the banks, and drought led to 100 million acres being ruined by soil erosion. There followed an immense number of foreclosures, attended by riots in amy areas. President Roosevelt attempted to deal with the situation by the Farm Credit Association and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Until late in the 19th century, eastern Oklahoma was "Indian Territory", with also a long strip of "public land" in the west. In 1889 the goverment purchased the land from the "Five civilised tribes" and opened it up to homesteader settlement. On April22nd of that year a gun was fired to start the process and there was a veritable cavalry charge of would-be settlers trying to stake a claim to the best land. One of these could have been Grandpa Joad, the tragically senile patriach of the novel, since Steinbeck makes it clear from the towns mentioned in chapter 13 (Sallisaw, Checotah and Henrietta) that the Joad farm was in the extreme east of the state, on former Indian land, near the Arkansas border; the jail at McAlester where Tom was imprisoned being a litle south of this. This means that the Joads and their fellow farmers were not at all like European peasantry, who might have cultivated the same field for countless generations: they identified with the land, but were actually very recent arrivals.

By 1900, 800,000 settlers were in residence, and in 1907 Oklahoma was admitted as a fully-fledged state. Its first Senator was the blind lawyer T. P. Gore; grandfather of the novelist Gore Vidal.

Steinbeck describes the flight of the Joads along Route 66 to California, through towns which will be familiar to those who remember the early Rolling Stones song about the "highway that's the best" (though not, alas, for the Joads and other refugees) - "Oklahoma City; Amarillo; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona". But the Joads never reach Los Angeles, ending up instead in Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin valley, where they find nothing but starvation wages and hostility and violence. The only welcoming treatment they receive is at the Arvin Migratory Labour Camp, which, significantly, is run by the Federal government and deeply hated by the locals.

Of course Steinbeck is trying to make a left-wing point, but even so we are left wondering why no-one sees the refugee Okies as fellow-citizens in need of help. We can contrast an almost contemporary British case, that of the Jarrow hunger marchers, who on their way to London found widespread public sympathy and the support of M.P.s and other influential people. The Joads, by contrast, are without any friends other than their fellow-refugees. It occurred to me that their sufferings would not have seemed abnormal had they been black: after all, this was the way "niggers" were treated. But the Joads and all their fellow-Okies were white; in fact there are no black characters in the book. To find a modern European parallel we might consider the case of Romanian gypsies: after all, the Okies have had to travel just as far as the gypsies!