Reviews – March 2021
Poly Styrene: I am a cliché
Directed by Celeste Bell and Paul Sng
Certificate 12a, 96 minutes
Released 5 March at www.modernfilms.com
Viewers can select a participating local cinema to share the revenue of the virtual box office
This documentary about the late Poly Styrene (real name Marion Elliot), the iconic front woman of the 1970s punk band X-Ray Spex, paints a compelling picture of a creative and innovative young woman going against the grain to break new ground in pop music. The band was very much her baby which she put together by advertising for musicians in the music press. She wrote all their material.
Her literal baby is the film’s co-director and co-writer Celeste Bell, who as a young child escaped from her well-intentioned but unfit mother during their time living on the Hare Krishna estate in Hertfordshire. On her mum’s death, Celeste found herself the guardian of Poly’s vast archive. It was five years before she could bring herself to look inside and see what was there.
Much of the amateur footage shows Poly performing with the band. A force of nature, she enthusiastically bounds around the stage belting out words. But a considerable amount of film just shows her going about her life. She spent a lot of time alone writing not only songs but also a diary, and many extracts and a few poems are read by the actress Ruth Negga.
The band’s best known song ‘Oh bondage, up yours!’ is about any sort of repression, such as that of the Israelites in Egypt. Whether Bible stories or church played any part in her upbringing is never explored, the film delving instead into her ethnic heritage as the daughter of a Somalian British father and a white British mother. She was the first woman of colour to front a British rock band following a painful childhood as a so-called ‘half caste’ alienated from both black and white communities.
Only in the punk rock community, consisting of people who didn’t fit anywhere else, did she begin to find who she was. Subsequent spiritual searching in India, then Hertfordshire, preceded incarceration for schizophrenia in a mental institution – a misdiagnosis, since she was bipolar. Racial strife, mental illness and pressures of parenting caused her much grief, but her creativity remains an inspiration.
Jeremy Clarke is a film critic. His work is available at jeremycprocessing.com
But Where Are You Really From?
On identity, humanhood and hope
Amanda Khozi Mukwashi
This is a short book from Christian Aid’s CEO, written in a clear, simple style and illustrated by plenty of vivid stories. I read it quickly and assumed that I knew what it was about. It was only when I re-read it at a slower pace that I realised I had somehow failed to hear the author’s voice or appreciate the deep significance of her words.
Mukwashi was born in and now lives in the UK but spent formative years with her family in Zambia. She is all too aware that behind the frequently asked question: ‘Where are you really from?’ lie other, more insidious questions like: ‘Where am I in relation to you?’ and ‘So, how do you fit in (or not) with “our” culture?’ Her response to such half-concealed attitudes of prejudiced and ignorant positioning is not to become a victim.
Rather, she presents as a rare yet strong, wise, thought-through advocate of a much more grown-up understanding of what it is to be human and live well with others. In this, she readily acknowledges the debt she owes to her faith, and to experience and insights gained from her family in Africa, not least, their character traits of determination, fairness, wisdom and hospitable generosity.
Wherever Amanda has been she has always drawn deeply on her grandfather’s advice to her mother: ‘Remember that the trees and the earth know who you are. So, if you forget who you are, just remember what I have told you and you will be fine.’
The author’s disarmingly honest narrative spells out clearly that completeness as a person is a tapestry of many different strands, and that we are mistaken if we identify ourselves or others by a single experience or characteristic. Her hope is that, having read the book, readers will know her by the content of her character rather than the colour of her skin or the continent of her origin. For this reader, and many others, that hope is more than amply fulfilled.
Ian Fosten is Book Reviews Editor for Reform
Reflecting on the Reformation
A People’s Tragedy: Studies in Reformation
Eamon Duffy writes about the process of Reformation in Britain under the Tudor dynasty, sparked off by King Henry VIII seeking divorce and the dissolution of monasteries. Duffy has previously written about religion in Britain at the start of this process, arguing that religious life was not moribund, corrupt and therefore ready for an easy acceptance of King Henry’s Reformation.
Duffy describes the popularity of pilgrimages in the late Middle Ages, reflecting the religious life of ordinary people. Many monasteries were still places of piety, learning and hospitality, of caring for the sick and poor in their communities. He gives a whole chapter to the life and dissolution of Ely Priory.
This book is not a continuous narrative. Individual chapters are devoted to one area of interest. There is a superb chapter on the production of the King James Bible and its great influence on the English language. This translation was undertaken in the Stuart dynasty, but the scholarship that underlaid it was the product of the Tudor period. There are also chapters on Luther as seen through Catholic eyes, and on the Walsingham Pilgrimage, past and present. They are distinct chapters, but each adds to the overall interest and argument of the book.
The final chapter concerns how we evaluate popular fiction about historical events and people. Wolf Hall has caused many people to change their opinions about Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell: the goodie and the baddie change places. This book helps us to have clearer minds before making decisions about people and situations.
Anyone interested in English Reformation history and its primary characters will find this book stimulating. It is beautifully written and a joy to read. It will also make you want to read more. I have already noted two books mentioned by Duffy which I want to read soon.
Bill Mahood is a retired minister and former Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly
Fierce Love: Music leads a lost child home
I first became aware of Christian musician Adrian Snell in the 1970s. In this book, Snell tells his story, tracing his life from early encounters with music as an unhappy child, through formal musical training, to his experiences as a composer, performer, recording artist, producer and promoter. Faith and training resulted in him giving equal weight to being true to his Christian convictions and pursuing musical excellence.
Snell shares a wide variety of lessons and experiences that affected him deeply – visiting concentration camps and people living with leprosy, encountering children with additional needs, conversations with Jewish friends – as well as personal family experiences. He explains the profound impact of these on him and ultimately his music, which led to him writing a succession of musical projects that he performed across the world. In more recent years, Snell’s life skill and experiences have come together with his compassion and convictions: he has become a successful music therapist.
I enjoyed and learned much from the life of Adrian Snell. It was good to read of a trained, skilled musician who has devoted his life to pursuing his art with an open mind and determination in a unique variety of different areas. I enjoyed reading about Snell’s many dimensions: confused son, loving husband, grateful father, professional musician and thoughtful Christian. I felt able to relate to and respect him, while being challenged by his intellectual and emotional honesty and openness. Constantly acknowledging his weaknesses and limitations, Snell followed his Christian and musical vocations through unchartered territory, remaining true to both.
Malcolm Short is a retired headteacher and church musician
The challenge of liberalism
Keeping Alive the Rumor of God:
When most people are looking the other way
Wipf and Stock
Martin Camroux offers us a book that is both a personal account of his faith and an apologetic (though he might not necessarily own that phrase) for Christian faith as articulated in the liberal tradition. I would not instinctively identify myself with that tradition, but I approached this book with a sense of anticipation, knowing the author to be significantly gifted with clarity of insight.
Camroux engages with important issues like the nature of God, what it is to be human, the phenomenon of beauty, the current circumstances of the Church and society, other religious traditions, engaging with Scripture, the search for justice, and responses to New Testament accounts of the person, death and resurrection of Jesus.
He is not afraid to face challenges that come from all directions, and is honest that some of his answers must of necessity be provisional. Nevertheless, there remains a faith in a God of love who is as God is in Jesus.
This is not a long book, but behind it lies a both a lifetime of reading, and considerable reading of life. The sources draw on many centuries and range across and beyond the Christian tradition: Camroux cannot be accused of only reading what is comfortable. I found references to authors I know well, those I am aware of, and those entirely unfamiliar.
Although my faith story comes from a different direction, many times I found myself to be not so far away in outlook as I had expected. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to think a little more about the important questions of life, whether or not they would call themselves a liberal Christian. I suspect, also, that anyone who turns these pages will not be short of ideas for further reading.
Alistair Smeaton is a minister in Cumbria and a science teacher at Lakes College West
These reviews were published in the March 2021 edition of Reform