The Jubilee Transmissions
by James Graham
Strange thing: one evening as we were watching the news, the screen suddenly went herringbone, and then there was something new: very out of focus at first, a sea-mist with figures, grainy, tumbling, breaking into snow, reforming and then settling to a different picture. Ever since then, about the same time every night, the former scenes and faces have fallen into chaos and given way to images of another world.
At first we wanted to retune and reset, and were annoyed because we had missed Roseanne and Jonathan Creek. But then, as I was about to ring Customer Service, my wife said, ‘Wait a minute. This is good.’
The very first thing that won us over was a street festival: cameras right in the thick of the crowd, hand-held, dodging the mad figure of the tio as the tin-miners of Bolivia appeased this uncle-devil in hope of living a little longer.
There have been other street events since, and always you’re closer than you ever imagined you could be. You feel as if you’re surrounded by the noise and the movement. Through the camera you look right into the eyes of young Brazilian men dancing the capoeira, or watch and listen from the very front of the crowd as a village gamelan plays somewhere in Sumatra.
At first, as in the early days of television, we just watched everything that happened to be showing. We didn’t actually dress up for our evening’s viewing as our parents used to do, but we would have an early meal and be ready in time.
Then, in the middle of the Prime Minister’s latest speech on the public services or the latest threat to our hearths and homes from foreign terrorists, virus mutations or Frankenfood tomatoes, the mackerel screen would appear, and our evening would begin.
News has always given way to news, at least at the beginning of the evening, news of lands not found on any map. The cameras were stationed at the farthest reaches of humanity, striking new angles, facing different ways.
Instead of a rag-bag of politicians and celebrities, they stick to the same story for a week or more. Not long ago, it was the Innu people of Nitassinan, the place we would have called in our old geography Labrador. They were walking in the snow across country in protest against warplanes flying low over their homeland.
We followed them every day. The person who talked most often to camera, Vivianne Descent, always seemed positive and humorous, never down. None of the talk was false, neither hers nor anyone else’s. London and Washington, from such a viewpoint, are hearts of darkness.
Then there are the regular shows called ‘Leaves of Grass’. At the beginning of each episode, the voice-over says: ‘Through me many long dumb voices, voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseased and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs...’ And always it’s an episode from what we have come to see as the real history of the world, history seen from camera angles nobody dreamed of until now.
There was the story of the lovers John Gwin and Margaret Kerry, and all the ‘motley crew’ who used to gather in Hughson’s tavern in Manhattan in the early 1740s, plotting — though they had as little power as wealth — the overthrow of the slaveholders and of the British tyranny. ‘Jubilee’ was the buzzword then: on the Day of Jubilee, the poor would reclaim their share of the world’s resources and its joy.
Hughson’s was something else too, one of the waterfront proletarian exchanges where Irishmen and Negroes, sailors, longshoremen and domestic servants traded in stolen goods, keeping body and soul together and reclaiming a meagre portion of the life their masters had stolen from them.
On St Patrick’s Day, 1741, Fort George was burned. Later that summer — along with thirty-two others — John Gwin and Peg Kerry were put to death, their love ended, and their child orphaned.
It occurs to me, though, after so long it seems strange that it should be so, that many people would find all this very tedious. It is like early television in many ways, quite amateurish and naive, uncommercial, nothing sexed up. But soon you no longer miss the old bill of fare, and when the herringbone screen appears again around ten o’clock, give or take a few minutes, you’re sorry to see whatever sitcom or big money quiz happens to sidle back into place.
It must be hard for others to imagine what a culture shock it was at first. Famous people seemed to be treated as if they were nobody, and obscure people as if they were somebody. Polly Baker was referred to as if she had been Queen Victoria; no need for preamble spelling out who she was.
I had to google the name. Polly Baker was a woman who was brought to court in Connecticut five times in her life for having bastard children. On her fifth appearance, in 1747, she made a speech. ‘We practically know it by heart,’ one of the contributors said apologetically. ‘But it’s still worth repeating.’
‘I cannot conceive what the nature of the offence is. I have brought five fine children into the world. I have maintained them well by my own industry, without burthening the township, and would have done it better, if it had not been for the heavy charges and fines I have paid. I therefore ought, in my humble opinion, instead of a whipping, to have a statue erected in my memory.’
She was already famous, and in the world beyond the herringbone screen the date of her celebrated speech seemed one of those dates we had learned in school: 1066, the year in which some medieval gangster frittered away the lives of thousands of young men in pursuit of his own greed and ambition. It seemed utterly insignificant. Who made us believe it mattered?
It’s not all news and history. We loved the comedy-drama series The Dark President. He was out to dominate the world; his droids were everywhere, behind their ears the cryptic letters: C-I-A. It wasn’t Batman or a Jedi knight that saw him off, it was millions of wondermen and wonderwomen who sussed him out and foiled his wicked schemes.
But it’s the history that we specially love. Kings and dictators and mediocre excellencies, the many men and the few women who have been the wearers of power-clothes are airbrushed out except as the remote originators of poverty and injustice and sometimes short-lived progress. Instead we celebrate men and women whose acts were heroic, tragic, whimsical, irresponsible... Lots of crazy stuff as well as serious.
All the stories have one thing in common. I’ve tried hard to pin it down, and the best I can do is this: these lives are all somehow detached from — or are not attachable to — the power-lines of the history we once accepted. Time-lines that transmit through the ages those currents of power which, when they enter the souls of princes and presidents, charge them to guide and marshal and play upon and murder their fellow human beings.
And then, one day I’ll never forget, there was a film about the life of Dan Graham. At first I thought, I wonder who that was? He has the same name as my father. But almost as soon as the film began, I knew it was my father. There were many others like him, the voice-over was saying, and not all of them could be celebrated — and yet there were no others like him, they were all unique.
It said he was a man who should be remembered for many things, but above all for his courage and patience in labouring all his life, from the age of eight when he left elementary school until the age of seventy-six, never under any illusion that a single working day or its achievement belonged to him.
I learned things about him that I had never known. As far as I can recall, he was never very sure himself exactly where he had been born. His father was a farm labourer, and the family moved quite often within the same district. Yet the film showed the exact place where he was born: in the county of Derry, Northern Ireland.
An old man of the village remembered two of the Graham brothers, and said he knew of Danny but had never met him, as Danny had ‘gone away’ when he was still just a boy. How did they know where he was born? Who were they?
Oddly enough, these questions didn’t trouble me for long. The shock of sitting down every evening and seeing the world turned upside-down, had already all but gone; now it vanished altogether. This was our television, my television. It was only at first that its reality had seemed strange. Now it was the old media that seemed unreal, still churning out their products, their manufactured celebrities, their tortuous fictions, their elevation of buying and selling instead of thought and pleasure, all in some thirteenth dimension that was supposed to be reality but had become, as it seemed to me, more fantastic than Middle Earth.
When my father was fifteen, his father died, and his mother took him to Glasgow. There she worked in a rope factory, and he got work as a garbage-collector’s boy, going round the back alleys with horse and cart at six in the morning.
At seventeen he went to work in the Parkhead Forge, a great ironworks in the style of Satan and Henry Ford. And every day, as he sweated to make the great iron shafts and cylinders, they were stolen from him, and he was cast out at the end of every week with a pittance that, added to his mother’s pittance, was just enough to house and feed them. In his fourth year of labouring at the forge his mother died, and in his fifth year of labouring he was sacked for helping to organise a union local.
One day he saw in the newspaper a notice saying that a country labourer was wanted, to look after an Ayrshire private estate with stables and a walled garden. Weary of the city, and his young wife-to-be as sick of it as he was and wanting to start afresh, he went there.
For the rest of his life — he never retired — the dry-stone walls around the fields and paddocks were written in his hand, and the tight barbed fences finished in his style. Every year he trimmed a mile of hawthorn hedge, and at its corners fashioned topiary chickens and peacocks. The estate was an exhibition of his work.
He was shown dismembering a tree fallen in the October gales, working single-handed at one end of a two-handed saw, loading the short timbers on to a pony-cart. The actor was so like him! The same long face, the strong jaw, the broad hands. How did they know what he looked like? It was something to wonder at, but not at all unsettling.
They showed him at the age of seventy-five, less than a year before his death, still starting work at seven-thirty on six mornings in every week, feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, hosing down the Daimler. For all my father’s devotion to this piece of earth he husbanded, until the day of his death he was always merely the hired man.
The horses and stables, the iron engine that generated power for the mansion house and the labourers’ cottages, the river and its trout, the chestnut trees and the dark abundant chestnut loam and its harvest — strictly forbidden to unwelcome schoolboys — all this belonged to a totter-up of rents: a country gentleman who owned grey urban streets, a renter of cold rooms and common stairs.
This man had been a mine-owner until the mines were nationalised by those Stalinist fellow-travellers, the postwar Labour government. After that, he lived on his compensation, his investments, and his rents.
My father worked alone, in company with sun-pools in the woods, or shivering birch-leaves, or the early snowfall, apparitions of his freedom, enticements to his folded self. It is easy to say that in some poetic sense all this somehow belonged to him. Perhaps it was better that it didn’t, if owning it produced a man like his boss: tense, irascible, neurotic about his property, a fascist in his politics. Perhaps it was because he did not own them that my father was able to love the birch-woods and the tall, sleek fox-hunting horses.
It’s true, as I’ve already said, that almost at once the whole thing began to seem perfectly natural. That someone else in another house might be watching his or her own father’s or grandmother’s story instead of mine, did not seem in the least absurd. Nor has it seemed odd that there are no ads or trailers, or that in all this time we’ve never seen a channel identification. We have no idea where in the world it comes from, but it doesn’t matter because in every image and every story it tells, it is the world.
Our lives — or perhaps I should say, our inner lives — are changed by it. Those who laboured for purposes not their own, whose meticulous craft or husbandry or mere physical labour were listed with trees and fences and animals in the inventory of another’s property; those harassed and beaten and driven on to the open road; those born into the world and buried in earth without ever sharing in its abundance: these seem to us now the protagonists of the ages. Their unconsummated history has become true history, their thieving and their resistance virtuous acts, and their preachers of Jubilee our great men and women. We have learned to turn our faces towards this new world and away from the world we once inhabited — even though this Middle Earth is still all around us.
Or rather, the two worlds shift and interchange.
One day we thought for an awful moment there was something wrong with our channel. Just before the herringbone shift we were seeing soldiers, a great mass of soldiers, men all dressed the same, that grotesque parody of a dance troupe, marching and turning always in straight lines, never in a curve, stamping their feet in response to great bellowing shouts, and gripping and slapping their rifles and heaving them on to their shoulders.
Then it cut to a march-past, all the left feet going forward and then all the right feet, all the faces turned towards some famous man, His Excellency the Most Serene and Impeccable Prince Who-He. Then the soldiers dissolved into mist and the picture tumbled and began to reform. But this time there seemed to be no change at all. They were still there, the same soldiers, the same puppet feet and faces.
We looked at each other in dismay. And then ‘Oh, but look!’ my wife said. Sure enough, the picture was changing. Suddenly one man, just one, was wearing a white rose. Then another had lost his uniform jacket and was wearing a loud shirt, sky-blue with a palm-tree. A third had lost his shouldered rifle and was carrying instead a cartoon vagabond’s bundle, a red kerchief spotted white, knotted on to the end of a gnarled stick.
And presently they were all different, there were bush hats and fur hats and back-to-front baseball caps, brogues, sandals and gumshoes, a dozen or so orange-and-white-cloaked Burundian drummers and dancers, two clowns and a carnival devil. The synchronised left feet and right feet were all this time becoming random, until nobody was marching, all just easily and loosely walking.
So at last, though some mornings we wake and go off to tour the supermarket, swimming in muzak, choosing coloured boxes of brown mush and hard fruit under soft lights, and Jubilee seems very distant, we have come to understand that the life around us and the life we see through the little window in our television set are not separate.
Even as we pick up the newspapers and see children dead and maimed and sick in one country after another, and the makers of these afflictions rewarded and justified, we know that the two worlds are one and the same, folded each inside the other. We haven’t been kidnapped by aliens and carried off to Planet Polly in some far galaxy. No, this is Earth, where the march can always become a motley walk.
Copyright © 2012 by James Graham