Maya Angelou speaking in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Maya Angelou 1928-2014: An extraordinary mix of innocence and depravity, elegy and celebration

From the archive: Nicci Gerrard on Maya Angelou's second volume of autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, first published in the New Statesman 17 May 1985.

Autobiography can be stranger than fiction, more delightful in its telling and more inspiring in its tale. Maya Angelou's first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was sheer delight. Its sassy, gritty, knock-kneed enchantment with the world in all its colours and its funny, marvelling evocation of childhood's shape, sound and smell burst through the cage of black woman's adversity. The book ended with 16-year-old Maya holding her newborn son in her arms, the world open and unsignposted before her — and readers wanting more.

In its sequel, Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou has lost none of her verve for life, and her almost physical enjoyment of the words that we chew and roll around in appreciation at their unpredictable prescience. But Gather Together in My Name is not simply more of the same. In spite of all the horrors encountered, the pellucid, spontaneous imagination of the younger Maya made the cage into a wide world of sunlight. The prison bars close in during adulthood: natural glee and the courage of hope press up against a difficult world and from their friction Angelou creates a more wisely exuberant self.

Angelou's love of life turns a catalogue of horror into a tale of gutsy survival. The book opens on the war's ending. After the first flush of victory, during which "everybody had soft little preparation-to-smile smiles on their faces" and "Race prejudice was dead", America re-erects old familiar boundaries. Maya herself is 17 — "very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months" — and already intimate with a textured guilt, "my familiar, my bedmate". The end of the war is for her a time of shuddering self-doubt; a wide-eyed inconsolable gaze at the real world outside childhood.

She becomes a cook, content among the odorous vapours of onion, sweet pepper and garlic until she falls in love with a stunned abruptness. The transience of passion and pain at its absenc sets up a pattern of impermanence in Maya's life. Travelling to Los Angeles she works in a nightclub and then drifts into managing a brothel. The sprightly hard-boiled tone is spiked by retrospective self-knowledge:

I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, cultural, intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores. I was a waitress and believed myself cleverer than the customers I served. I was a lonely unmarried mother and held myself to be freer than the married women I met.

After a brief and discomforting visit to the slow-speaking, right-thinking Arkansas of her childhood, Maya returns to California to Cook in a greasy, dingy diner, knowing that the rancid cooking oil and the old men's sadness has seeped into her pores. A few months of tap-dancing make only a glorious interlude in her sure decline into the world of narcotics and prostitution. Teetering on the brink of destruction, Maya is given a sudden glimpse into the hidden world of the wretched, into which she is poised to rumble. It is a vision of hell on earth: standing in a hit joint for addicts and watching their salivating, scratching degradation she finally "knew innocence as real as a grain of sand between my teeth". The end of Gather Together in My Name performs an act of redemption upon both life and book. At its moment of crisis Angelou achieves the honed understatement of a deeply-felt truth:

The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all, and at the critical moment one man's generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.

Entering squalid humiliation and returning from it whole and hopeful, Gather Together in My Name binds horror and raunchy delight together through its unique voice. In it, the reverberations of the Black Church's Gospel songs and the syncopated rhythms of jazz converge; the inherited proud tradition Angelou's beleaguered people and the unsentimental isolation of her individual spirit interweave; the natural optimism that chases away shadows is also sharpened into self-lacerating wit. Loving the world, Maya Angelou also knows its cruelty and offers up her autobiography as an extraordinary mixture of innocence and depravity, of elegy and celebration. 

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump