Monday 25 October 2021

The Life in Exile of Angel Parra

Often overshadowed by his famous mother Violeta, one of the leading influences who helped shape the sound of the Chilean Nueva Cancion (New Song) movement, Angel Parra's life is in many ways just as interesting, taking him far beyond Chile.

His exile was originally involuntary. Due to his left-wing political ideals and his links with the Popular Unity party of Salvador Allende, after the 11th of September 1973 coup d'état (documented by Cuban film-maker Santiago Alvarez in his film The Tiger Leaps and Kills, but it will will Die) Parra was initially held at the National Stadium, before being transferred to the Chacabuco prison camp, where he was kept until February 1974.

He used his time there to help set up a committee to organize cultural activities for the prisoners. Before being released, Parra sang to the rest of his inmates, in a performance that was recorded covertly by Luis Corvalán and released in 1975 on an album titled Chacabuco. It was also during his time in prison that he wrote "La pasión según San Juan, Oratorio de Navidad" (The passion according to San Juan) which was eventually recorded and published in Europe.

After his release, he fled first to Mexico to avoid further persecution, before moving to France, which was at that time home to the largest worker's party in western Europe, the Parti communiste français (PCF). It was here that, in addition to being able to record and release his music again, he shared his testimony about the human rights violations he suffered under the US-backed military dictatorship.

One of the first albums he recorded after settling in France was Angel Parra a Paris, which was originally released in 1978 as a double LP, being Angel's most extensive production to date. Most of the songs are composed by Parra himself, some of them drawn from previous albums and combined with studio versions of songs previously only recorded live. There are also some cover versions of songs by his mother Violeta Parra as well as others composed by people like the Cuban troubadour Carlos Puebla. Other albums Parra released around this period are the Chilean popular guitar album La prochain fois (The next time) along with the last album he recorded with his sister Isabel in 1981.

Also in 1978 he made a small cameo appearance in El Cantor (The Singer), a TV movie produced in the GDR (East Germany) inspired by the life of his colleague, the murdered Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara. The film was written and directed by the US-born actor and singer Dean Reed (who played Jara in the film) who, like Parra himself, had known Jara in Chile before his murder.

With the successful referendum to restore democracy, Parra returned to Chile in 1989, and during the 1990s he began to see some of his albums reissued in his birth country. However, he continued to make his home in Paris, where he eventually died of cancer in 2017. He is buried in Pere Lachaise, along with other famous exiles like Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde.

You can buy one of my renditions of Parra, this one in pen and ink, from my Red Bubble shop here.

Sunday 22 August 2021

Britain's role in Vietnam

Vietnamese propaganda poster c.1960s
(translator unknown)

When we think of countries that have interfered aggressively against the people of Vietnam over the previous century the Americans are probably the first country that comes to most people's minds, with the French a close second, perhaps followed by Japan, and then China. 
What is less well known is Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism on the Indochinese peninsula after World War 2 which, like British diplomatic support for US sanctions after the Vietnamese military victory of 1975, is rarely mentioned in official histories.
Most historians, and consequently even some peace activists, tend to look favourably on the stance that Prime Minister Wilson took to the American War, refusing to send British troops to kill and be killed, but preserving the "special relationship" by providing diplomatic support for the US war of aggression. Its image of a cautious approach to foreign policy is as comforting as it is misleading.

This much I was aware of. 

I also knew about the diplomatic support that Prime Minister Thatcher later offered the US during the post-war economic embargo it imposed on the Vietnamese as punishment for their victory. This is less discussed on television documentaries than the period of the war itself and Wilson's stance, and I only know about it because of the work of independent journalists like John Pilger. 
Pilger has also drawn attention to Thatcher's role in lobbying the UN on behalf of the USA to cut shipments of powdered milk to the war-ravaged nation, which Vietnam had been receiving through the UN's food aid programme. (I still wonder why this woman had such a callous disregard for children's nutrition, be they Vietnamese or British.)
On the other hand, I had been far less aware of Britain's role in trying to restore French colonialism to the Indochinese peninsula following the Japanese defeat in WW2. I owe much to the work of historian John Newsinger for bringing this history to light.

The key events happened in the autumn of 1945. 

On September 2, President Ho Chi Minh read his famous speech to a large crowd in Hanoi, proclaiming the independence of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam and reading from their Declaration of Independence. So grateful were the Vietnamese for the material support the Viet Minh national liberation army had received from the US in order to defeat the Japanese military occupation that large sections of the newly drafted Declaration are modelled after the US Declaration. US intelligence officials have been identified applauding in the crowd, presumably hopeful that the new nation of Vietnam would be a useful client state in the region.

On September 6 however we see the first British troops, commanded by General Douglas Gracey, begin arriving in the southern city of Saigon. Viet Minh control is weakest here in the south of the country, and the British seek to exploit this weakness by proceeding to introduce a form of martial law, disarming the nationalists and arming newly released POWs.
By September 23, with Gracey's support, the French were able to seize power in Saigon by taking over the city hall and arresting any Vietnamese they thought were connected to or sympathetic to the new government in Hanoi. 

The historian George Rosie records one clash that took place between 80 members of the British Indian Infantry Brigade (Gracey, like the author George Orwell, came from that tier of British society born to parents living in British India, but educated at private schools back in the UK) that resulted in the deaths of at least 60 Vietnamese.
It was only due to considerable pressure that General Gracey was forced to open negotiations with the Viet Minh, who he had refused to recognise up until this point. However, this was merely a ploy to buy time for reinforcements to arrive.

English language film poster for Memories of Dien Bien
(source: IMDB)

The rest is pretty well known history. The French continued their attempts to restore their colonial domination of Indochina until they were finally defeated at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 (a period depicted in the 2004 film Memories of Dien Bien). By this time the Cold War was underway, and the USA was fully in the grip of its anti-communist fervour, so was more inclined to view the new socialist government in Hanoi far more negatively than when it was fighting against Axis-aligned Japan.

Thursday 29 April 2021


This is quite an old comic strip which I created in 2005. At the time I was still producing a lot of work for the groovy people at Hope Street Studios in Glasgow, but it wasn't stoner humour so I kept it on the back burner, and so it has sat hidden in my files for the last few years. I can't remember why I made the guard into a French-style gendarme. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday 12 April 2021


I have enjoyed a lot of the historical comics that have been published over the last decade immensely, whether it is Mary and Bryan Talbot's graphic novels about the French revolutionary Louise Michel, or Kate Evans' book about the Polish-German communist Rosa Luxembourg, or even the late, great Spain Rodriguez's graphic autobiography of the Argentine revolutionary, and honorary Cuban, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

What more could a former bookseller, whose principle published comics have been a series of short strips consisting mainly of gags aimed at Scottish stoners a decade ago, possibly add to magnificent illustrated tomes of this nature? After all, there are many (non-illustrated) books about these revolutionaries and others in the English language.

If you have looked at this blog before you will know that I have a particular fascination with uncovering art (including comics, music and film) that lies outside the mainstream of western culture. The Cold War years certainly shut us off from a lot of art and culture which only cheaper travel and the Internet has made (theoretically) more accessible. Yet despite being able to travel freely to countries of the former Soviet Union for thirty years, most people in the west remain oblivious of the culture of the east, effectively shut out by the invisible barriers of language. Add to this the fact that if the entire culture of a civilisation is routinely written off for by western pundits and historians as mere propaganda for a century, you create a situation in which people in the west aren't even aware of what they are missing.

The first installment of Going East is about a Canadian musician who emigrated to East Germany, and seems to remain completely unknown in Canada and the wider western world because he sang in German and any books that have been written about him are only published in German. I hope it inspires some people to find out more art they may have missed out on. I assure you, its the merest tip of the iceberg.