The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Festival
The London Korean Film Festival, various venues, 22 October-3 November

Across various London venues, comprising 33 events, the seventh London Korean Film Festival will feature a combination of films ranging from low-budget independent works to big-budget, box office hits. This year’s festival sees the return of the animation section which will include the violent morality tale King of Pigs, a film that has been doing the rounds on the international festival circuit. “Regardless if you are a connoisseur of Korean cinema or completely new to the country’s film scene we have created an exciting and varied program that will delight, thrill, scare and, most importantly, entertain you,” says festival director Hye-jung Jeon.

Music

Barclaycard Mercury Prize, Channel 4, 1 November, 12:10am

The 20th Mercury Prize for best album sees the list of nominees dominated by guitar bands – including the Macabees – and singer-songwriters, most notably former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley. But it’s Plan B who’s tipped to win. His third album marks a change in direction, his sound harder, his music more political. Elsewhere on the list is the funky-jazz outfit Roller Trio and South London solo artist Jessie Ware.

Art

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery, 31 October-20 January 2013

The National Gallery’s first major photographic exhibition will show the work of leading photographers alongside historical paintings to emphasise how photographers draw on the traditions of fine art to inspire their own work. The exhibition will show the works of painters, early photographers and contemporary photographers ordered by traditional genres such as portraiture, landscapes and nudes. The exhibition will feature images from British and French photographers as well as works from international contemporary artists.

Television

Homeland, Channel 4, 28 October, 9pm

Last week, former marine, current congressman and reluctant, part-time al-Qaeda operative Nicholas Brody killed his tailor (who was also his purveyor of bespoke explosive vests). A devastating result was that this caused him to be late for his wife’s party – which made her angry. Meanwhile, twitchy, jazz-loving, ex-CIA agent and current English teacher Carrie Mathison gets un-friended by the CIA – again – before being vindicated by seeing Brody’s “By the time you watch this, I would have killed a lot of people, including myself” terrorist farewell video. This week we can expect more of the same kitchen-sink shenanigans. Brody’s video will be shown to Estes, Carrie’s former boss, who will authorise surveillance on Brody. But will Carrie get to put her twitchy eye to the telescope?

Film

Hackney Halloween screenings, Round Chapel, Hackney, London, 30 October

On the eve of Halloween, the creators of the Rooftop Film Club will host a short series of classic spooky films. The venue, Hackney’s Round Chapel, will only add to the ambience of horror. The event will comprise four screenings, two of which are suitable for children: ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters and The Lost Boys. 2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of ET and a special edition Blu-ray was released this month to mark the occasion. A note on the dress code and a disclaimer from the organisers: Fancy dress is not enforced but encouraged. Please note that Experience Cinema does not accept responsibility for any lost limbs, teeth, or fingers!”

Richard Hawley: one of the nominees for the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize. Photo: Getty Images.
The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear