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British Surrealism

George Melly in anarchist quarterly The Raven, Vol 1 Number 3, November, 1987.

Gentlemen First

Much as it grieves me to agree with Franklin Rosemont (his book on Breton was a hideous piece of hagiography), I must admit there is a great deal of truth in what he says about British Surrealism.
It was ineffectual. It did not consist of an effective ‘movement’. Its adherents were thoroughly confused as to its meaning. It held people until they were offered something unacceptable to it (eg. Henry Moore’s ‘Madonna and Child’), whereupon they left it immediately. Not only Herbert Read but Roland Pensrose accepted knighthoods – in fairness, it is impossible to imagine Breton wearing the Légion d’Honneur, etc., etc.
The question is: What stopped Surrealism from taking root in Britain?
Rosemont suggests individualism as the reason – the usual explanation. But he is rightly a ltiile tentative as to whether this alone is enough to explain its failure. I propose the following additional causes:

(A) English Protestantism

Surrealism nneded Catholicism to work effectively. That is why France was its true home and Spain its powerhouse. Its atheism was central to it. You can’t profane the Host without transubstantiation. No point in jumping on a piece of ordnary bread or pissing in admittedly inferior wine! It is interesting that David Gascoyne, this country’s most commited Surrealist, should have become religious. The rest remained gentlemanly freethinkers.

(B) The non-existence of cafes
Yhis may seem frivolous, but it is not. Pubs are hopeless settings for the exchange of ideas; restaurants too formal. The British Surrealists tried both and found them wanting. The cafe was surrealism’s natural theatre.

(C) Timing
The great ‘heroic’ years of Surrealism were from 1924 to 1930. The movement didn’t reach here ubtil 1936! This enabled highbrow critics to dub it ‘old hat’, for high society to patronise it as ‘amusing’. Even in France by this date there was much that was suspect – Minotaure had replaced La Revolution Surealiste etc., but here it started out as a sensation, a joke.

(D) No Breton
The paradox of the movement was that, devoted to total freedom, its long life can be put down to Breton’s imposition of his own view as to what Surrealism stood for at any given time. Aragon remarked slily that ‘Andre always gave the impression of being in a majority of one.’
Here in Britain the leader of the movement was my much loved, much missed friend, E. L. T. Mesens, a Belgian. Intelligent, an admirable poet and collagist, he just didn’t have the muscle to act as legislator. If he tried to institute a Surrealist commandment, those it would affect adversely just left. Jacques Brunius, a Frenchman of great charm, stood in, as it were, for breton’s Peret.
I attended many of the later meetings of the group. They were rowdy, good fun, even challenging, but they achieved nothing.

(E) Yes, Individualism
The British are bad at collective action. In some cases, it is just as well they are!
Edward Burra, for example, in my eyes the most genuine ‘Surreal’ painter we’ve had, left almost as soon as I’d joined. When I asked him why, he explained, ‘I didn’t like being told what to think, dearie!’

The war finished Surrealism in Britain. The nation turned in on itself; neo-romanticism became the measure of our insular preoccupations. You couldn’t give away Surrealist paintings until time tuned them into ‘investments’.
There was a revival of interest in the ‘mechanism’ of Surrealism in the 1960s, but none in its rigorous programme. A few people did try to keep it alive as a movement. In particular, grumpy but endearing John Lisle in Exeter achieved the authentic tone of breton in orchestrating quarrels and declaring excommunications. He was, however, as Mesens described him, ‘a general without an army’.
Mesens, by the way, had his own explanation of the movement’s failure in this country: ‘The English are always gentlemen first, Surrealists scond.’

George Melly



These days Alien is seen as a classic of the cinema, especially so of feminist cinema, but Spare Rib, number 89, December, 1979 saw the film differently.

Directed by Ridley Scott
(20th Century Fox)

This film is a con. In the guise of a futurist fantasy with a ‘liberated’ female lead is a film that would do the Old Testament proud. Good fights Evil in a battleground of men’s fears about sexulality and death.
Into the ordered world of the space freighter Nostromo comes the Alien, a diabolical monster which proceeds to cause havoc and kill the crew. Lots of suspense, until the second officer, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), dispatches it into space.
It’s a crude film full of hateful sexual imagery. We are spared a romantic interest or any overt sexual brutality, but are we to make of the way the malevolent Alien is portrayed? Our first view of it is like an image of childbirth. John Hurt has penetrated the Alien’s environment, a strange ship on a mysterious planet. He finds a series of pods and one expels its contents into his face, breaking through his protective visor. back at the Nostromo, as the Science Officer cuts the visor off, his head looks as though it’s turned into a huge vagina – known in the Middle Ages as ‘The Devil’s Mark’.
Thereafter the Alien becomes distinctly male and all hell breaks loose. Hurt, the proxy woman, dies giving birth, as his chest explodes, to a penis which eventually turns into the classic medieval devil. The transformation is traced by a trail of semen-like goo and a cast off sheath-like skin.
The plot comes to a head, so to speak, after Ripley, the sexless woman who even so manages to represent every female stereotype from witch to Sleeping Beauty, escapes from the “Mother” ship. The Alien nearly gets her too after she has gone sexy by stripping to her vest and pants, but she puts on a white space suit to fend off the black menace. She “blasts the fucker into space”, only after it has dangled tantalisingly on the end of an umbilical cord, ready to crawl back into her spaceship. Evil leaves the world as it entered, through a female image.
The film’s message is as old as Adam and Eve. Man is destroyed by the unknown, the mysterious, the female, which through sexuality corrupts the purity of masculine order and leads to destruction.
It throws in a bit moral censure about science and capitalism for good measure, but basically if neither God nor Mammon can be relied on to protect man from mortality, woman must be blamed for the Fall.
Alien exploits the irrational fears and ignorance which are the foundations of sexism and racism. It is far from illuminating, unlike Joseph Conrad’s novel about imperialism, Nostromo, on which some of the film ‘s ideas are presumably based. The most that can be said for Ridley Scott’s version is that it’s clever, though confused. It’s a main chance movie with the latest box office ‘musts’ of special effects and a female star. But the vision is patriarchal. That’s no future.

Marion Bowman

The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter’s book reviewed in Spare Rib, number 85, August, 1979.

The Bloody Chamber
by Angela Carter
(Gollancz £4.95)

Recognition of the importance of fairy tales has led feminists to devise alternatives for children: to provide energetic princesses to take the place of those passive heroines who were always the prey whether they were savaged or not. In The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter has recreated a series of fairy stories for adults: Bluebeard; Beauty and the Beast; Puss in Boots … In precise and sensuous writing she puts a mirror to familiar tales which reflect their dark sexual meanings and she uses the dialogues between humans and animals, commonplace in folklore, to explore the otherness of sexual experience.
But as you read through the stories in their sequence you can see in the mirror a new manipulation and control of the images which begins to create its own powerful mythology: Little Red Riding Hood leaves the safety of her home in her red shawl that “today has the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow.” At last the wolf, carnivore incarnate, says his words: “‘All the better to eat you with.’ The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.” And the spell is broken: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.”
In that and other stories Carter examines themes apparent in her novels and in The Sadeian Woman: the curious relation between living flesh and dead meat; the corruption of the oppressed. However the taut structure of the traditional fairy story provides an excellent constraint on Carter’s super-abundance of ideas and images. It is a wonderful book, both erotic and optimistic. Powerful bedtime reading.
Katherine Gieve

The Handmaid’s Tale

Spare Rib, number 180, July, 1987, reviews Margaret Atwood’s novel.

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood, Virago Press, £3.95 paperback.

The Handmaid’s Tale
is Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel, currently being produced as a feature film with a script by Harold Pinter. The novel is a satiric dystopia about America taken over by totalitarian religious fundamentalists. It is narrated by the handmaid, a sort of captive surrogate breeder, kept by big sister ‘Aunts’ in the reproductive service of sterile ‘Commanders’ Wives’ in a world where women are defined by their procreative capacity, or lack of it. Futuristic though the Tale may be, it has all the recognizable warning signs of life in the late 1980’s, true to the quote from Swift’s A Modest Proposal which prefaces the novel.
Speaking recently at the ICA in London, Margaret Atwood described her fiction in terms of rewriting stories, myths and genres from the point of view of the voiceless women represented in them. The Handmaid’s Tale clearly bears the mark of this technique of rewrite-cum-reversal, echoing the fairy Tale (Grimm’s, not Disney’s), the book of Revelations, Plato’s Republic, 1984 and Brave New World. The novel also echoes strongly the narratives of concentration camp survivors, and reflects, no doubt, Margaret Atwood’s longstanding political affiliation with Amnesty International.
Readers familiar with Margaret Atwood’s fiction will recognize in The Handmaid’s Tale the skilled use of satire, irony and sarcasm which charecterises much of her work and is honed to an even keener edge in this her most explicitly critical novel to date. Perhaps I felt this aspect of the novel bordered on the relentless because it is the only form of resistance or escape offered in the novel. There is something slightly disturbing about having used the voice of an anonymous woman caught in the reproductive horrors of fascism, and having taken away everything from her, only to return her to silence and anonymity in a fictional afterworld which reconstructs the Tale as an obscure, even ‘mute’, historical artifact. Is there something about this relentless, very 1980’s, cynicism that accounts for this book’s otherwise quite suprising popularity (over 1 million copies sold in America, nominated for the Booker Prize, destined for a feature film)? I wonder.

Sarah Franklin

Tiswas v Swap Shop

Spare Rib number 106, May, 1981, reviews Saturday morning kids TV.
I was a Tiswas kid.

ATV, Saturdays
Multi-Coloured Swap Shop
BBC1, Saturdays

To set against the following partisanship – I love TISWAS but find Swap Shop tedious – I must say that the token women in both programmes are equally feminine, serious and put-upon. In fact, a friend suggested they were clones, so similar are their shiny locks and neat faces. And neither of them ever do anything wicked.
In Swap Shop this isn’t much discrimination – everybody is terribly responsible. The BBC just breeds its children’s programme presenters Adult. I spent my childhood sneering at Blue Peter, and I’m afraid my tastes haven’t changed sides with age.
But on TISWAS – never-a-day-to-miss-cos – the men are truly anarchic. The chidren roam the studios and look neither nervous of the camera nor particularly over-scrubbed. The TISWAS token Black (Swap Shop is very white) is out of control, an outrageous impersonator: to my mind, the only Black actor on TV who looks to have any power over his presentation at all.
The blond and blue-eyed presenter gets several foam pies in his face a week, but of course it doesn’t stop there; I presume ATV have a massive communal shower for all participants after the programme ends.
The children and men on TISWAS play with their medium – the cartoon figures are always slightly late; ads are ‘telly Selly Time’; rock musicians fail to mime along to their records. Stars get ridiculed – unlike on SS, where children are supposed to ask (short and polite) questions of the Guests, who smile patronisingly over the telephone receiver at Noel Edmunds.
Swap Shop has a more standard format, as well as a more static studio, with the adults behind counters. It’s ‘Top Ten Swaps’ send my flatmates beserk – what is supposed to be the point of these barters (Wanted: computer TV game plus roller skates; on offer: complete set of ABBA records and a jet-propelled barbie doll) that would make any child with an income of less than £60 a week feel a failure?
TISWAS develops week by week, adding anti-social character to anti-social character. It’s an addicts programme. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that makes me wish I were a comedian. Alsas, it’s true that it’s still very male…
What do children think of it all? I watch it with a five and a six year old, who like cartoons and pop music on both programmes and fail to get the TISWAS jokes. A seven year old visiting the office agrees with my view. On the other hand, all three love Chopper Squad, so what can I say?

Ruth Wallsgrove

Women’s Wrestling

A news story from Spare Rib, No. 85, August, 1979.

Wrestler wins

“It’s my greatest victory”, said wrestler Marjorie Farrar, after her tussle with the Greater London Council. Marjorie – who has been wrestling under the name Sue Britain for 15 years – recently took the GLC to an industrial tribunal for refusing her permission to appear in Southwick two years ago. Their ban on women wrestlers dates back to 1963, and had continued despite the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and consistent pressure from the EOC.
The Court ruled that the GLC had discriminated against her because of her sex. Later a council spokesperson said the ban would now have to be reconsidered. “I feel fantastic”, said Marjorie. “I decided to fight the council on behalf of all women in wrestling … and would have carried on the fight until I won, no matter what they had decided”.