China and Us

October 12th, 2015

As George Osborne went to China, Ai Weiwei came to Britain. As Osborne offered investment in nuclear reactors, Ai Weiwei displayed the shoddily made steel rods salvaged from a school destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake. Details of the earthquake’s effects were suppressed, lest it shine a light on corruption. As Osborne limited the discussion to trade, visitors to the Royal Academy witnessed scenes of Ai Weiwei’s imprisonment without trial, where two guards degraded his dignity by denying him any privacy.

Chinese state media Global Times said “Keeping a modest manner is the correct attitude for a foreign minister visiting China to seek business opportunities. Some Westerners believe their officials should behave like a master of human rights to show their superiority over China and the East.” There are echoes of Emperor Qianlong rebuking George III for requesting equal trade relations that were contrary to “dynastic usage”. “Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!” said the Emperor, putting the barbarian in his place. Cameron and Osborne seem to be showing no negligence in doing things Beijing’s way.

As Jeremy Corbyn knows, when in authority you sometimes have to hold your nose and take the long view. When representing a country it must be difficult to take a position on human rights without being told to examine your own faults first. But seeing Osborne’s visit in the light of Ai Weiwei brings to mind the film 99 Homes. The hero (Andrew Garfield) seeks to regain his family home by working for the real estate shark who evicted him. The price for regaining this lost piece of human dignity is to sacrifice the rest of his humanity by evicting families like his own. His interest becomes increasingly aligned to those of the shark, where the dignity of having a place to call your own is dismissed as sentimentalising a mere box of bricks.

Behind both the film’s story and Osborne’s careful diplomacy is the old question: what shall it profit a man that he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?

Palmyra

September 13th, 2015

What is our value as people compared to the things we create? It can seem wrong to mourn the destruction of old and dead stone as we would the deaths of living people. Surely a unique human life is of more value than the replaceable commodities and objects that we always keep making, breaking and re-making?

No one would seek to judge the inherent worth of one over the other. By themselves, things are just that – things. But the works of our hands are, by extension, the work of our minds and therefore of our whole being. Human life is short and memories can quickly fade. Since we take nothing with us when we die, it is the tangible things we make that have the chance of carrying a reflection of ourselves forwards. They are a focus of memory and repositories of stories, capable of communicating something to the future, if only through a dark glass. Ultimately, we can only accord value to our ancestors lives (albeit imperfectly and subjectively) by the tangible evidence of them that survives.

When we mourn the destruction of old stone, we mourn the desecration of the people who poured the best of their creative spirit into the world around them, shaping something that was capable of standing up to time, which we as humans can’t do. There is infinite value in a single human life and there are also times when a legacy of our shared life on earth is bigger than any one person.

Is Jeremy the answer?

September 13th, 2015

You don’t have to be a Labour supporter to be disenchanted by aspects of capitalism, by its excesses and its shamelessness, by the gross inequalities it can create and by its seeming intent to turn us all into creatures of pure consumption. There needs to be a remedy for such things and it ought to lie in Parliament, especially with a strong Opposition.

But does the remedy lie in Jeremy Corbyn? He is in so many ways a decent and admirable person, but there is always another side to such qualities in people. The fact that he has had the conscience to rebel so consistently against his own party suggests his chief concern is keeping his rebel badge polished, rather than setting aside differences of opinion and trying to work constructively with others, or fulfilling any position of responsibility. How can he now expect to command loyalty from anyone as a leader, popular mandate or no? There are more people in the UK than Labour voters and gaining their trust doesn’t seem to concern him. He may not do personality politics, but it still seems to be all about him soldiering on after all this time. Whatever answer we need to the extremes of capitalism, why should Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme remedy be any less deadly?

Meanwhile, Tom Watson claims that “we are the guardians of decency and fairness, justice and equality in the United Kingdom”. When did appearing holier-than-thou ever engage people?

Voice a Vote

February 8th, 2015

My paternal grandfather died before I was born, but we hung on to his books. Eventually, we had a clear out of them and it was only really then that I formed a partial picture of him to go with the old photographs and memories. He was a chemist, but owned many of the old Penguin Classics too, so the partial view I have formed is of an omni-competent sort of man, who knew what was under the bonnet of the car, as well as what was in Shakespeare.

Another surprising fact was that he was a Socialist, one who lived most of his life in staunchly conservative Sussex. Come an election, he would cast a vote for a candidate whom he must have known would not be chosen. Yet he clearly didn’t think his vote wasted, or he would have voted tactically, or abstained, or spoilt his ballot paper. I don’t know why didn’t he move to a place where his preferred choice would succeed. More interesting is the question of why he stayed engaged, when so many people are switching off from what they see as an unfair, outdated and ultimately pointless political process. Why did he continue to play such an un-rewarded and un-acknowledged part?

There are no doubt various answers. One possibility is that it was linked to how he saw his vote. He saw its value less as a means of being able to purchase what he had chosen and more as his chance to speak. His vote was his voice. The fact that the majority of other people who joined in spoke differently to him didn’t obviate the fact that he could have his say. His great-grandparents probably wouldn’t have had such a chance; one because of her gender and the other because he held too little property. My grandparents achieved a voice because they had achieved recognition as people, regardless of money or gender. Did they see their vote as an inherent part of their dignity as people?

If they did, they would have made common cause with the story told in ‘Selma‘, where the Civil Rights Movement struggles to effect real change through voter registration and standing up to the fear and intimidation that keeps so many people silent, all because of race. It seems incredible that such a struggle only happened 50 years ago. It seems incredible that there are still plenty of others in the same position. It seems incredible that some people who do have a voice now say that wilful silence is the only way to effect change.

The Grass is Greener

September 7th, 2014

Thinking about it, the Union of 1707 may be about to go the way it came. Created to save Protestantism (and its associated liberties) in England and Scotland, the latter is now considering Independence to save the NHS, Protestantism’s replacement. Tory Neoliberalism has replaced Catholic Despotism as the Enemy to be Kept Out. That’s all it seems to boil down to – love of the NHS and hatred of the Tories.

Still, no one is going to believe that Scotland can only get better with Independence, as the ‘Yes’ Campaign seems to keep piping to people, because why should the SNP be able to transcend the realities of power, instead of being subject to them like everyone else? If Independence does happen, then I will be waiting for reality to take a massive bite out of the SNP’s backside and watch them crawl to the electorate mumbling apologetically about the ‘global economic reality’ and ‘tough decisions that have to be made’. In short ‘the grass may look greener, but it still needs cutting’.

Thinking in terms of Scotland/England, rather than Britain as a whole, it’s understandable that many Scots feel frustrated by the fact that they don’t get the governments that they vote a majority for and want to trim their own verge for once. But the enemy of democracy is ultimately not Union; it’s when legislators serve the interests of powerful and narrow interests over the broader welfare of the electorate. You don’t need to be a Westminster MP to fall into that trap: witness Alex Salmond disregarding the democratic processes in order to get photographed with Donald Trump, who proceeded to  unleash a ruinous avalanche of money in Salmond’s Aberdeen constituency.

Also, what does Independence even mean beyond a successful ‘Yes’ vote? So far, it has only commonly been defined as not being part of the UK. But does it ultimately mean that Scotland will be a richer place, or a more just place? Will it be open to the world, or more inward looking? All of these things? Or most likely none of them and rather much more the same old story as before?

 

My First Fringe

August 20th, 2014

‘Fringe’ is synonymous with the edge, with things that have an edge, or things that are cutting edge. It’s a densely packed and tangled hinterland where a spotlight can shine upon any space and make it a stage, but where it’s still easy to go unnoticed. Fringe spaces afford freedom; the exotic and the experimental sprout in hidden corners. Sitting in the small, black curtained and improvised spaces, you are conscious of being at the coal-face, of being down in the basement lab, of sitting amid the grease work of the engine room.

The fun of the Festival is off-beat and whimsical. If you’re more used to solid and commercial arts where the spotlight of attention is focused, then hundreds of small and seemingly off-the-wall shows don’t seem to add up to much. You can read a desperate craving for attention behind the jollity as performers outdo each other in the shock stakes: hand out flyers in your underwear, lie on the ground in a bikini covered in fake blood, or perform in the street dressed as a pair of genitals. Bins on the Royal Mile are brimful with discarded flyers and billboards grow an inch thick with posters. At grassroots level you can feel lost amid the plethora of stems all straining to flower into magic beanstalks.

You can question if it’s worth struggling to rise to the surface amid such a creative stew, but in the end you re-learn a lesson that you thought you knew already: the only important thing is to take part. Regardless of audiences and reviews of the mainstream world, you were there for your moment and that is enough.

Mud On My Shoes at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014

August 6th, 2014

This monologue, first performed in 2012, concerns an aspiring politician who is visited by an accusing ghost from his past. Raising questions about integrity, memory and forgiveness, this will form part of the Better Together? sketch show at Venue 278 between August 18th-25th.

MudOnMyShoes

Something for Nothing

January 4th, 2014

Progress makes a lot of dodos. Now that we have personalised playlists, who needs Radio DJ's to anticipate our needs? We all have camera-phones, so who needs a Wedding Photographer to catch the moment? With DIY Wills, who needs a Lawyer? Who needs Editors and Publishers when you can self-edit and self-publish? Who needs travel agents when you book online? Who will need delivery-men and taxi drivers with driverless cars?

None of these professions is as doomed as the dodo (never underestimate people's resourcefulness to survive) but the specialist shine of the creative professional seems to be fading. A hundred years ago it happened to those who underwent years of apprenticeship to hand-craft cars, albeit at prices that few could afford. Henry Ford's revolution in mass production had no use for such people and so the car was liberated from the wealthy and went on to empower millions. As prices fell, so expectations rose. But the shadow cast by this leap was a vision of an impersonal world that was dominated by the standardised, the cheap and the commercial, with no place for individual and independent expression.

As certain media and creative industries become more mainstream / democratised / liberated, so it becomes harder to earn an individual and independent living from them. Increasingly habituated to having services and products provided for free (talk about a 'something for nothing culture') we shy away from giving a professional an incentive by paying them the necessary fee for a quality job. You might as well expect a flower to bloom whilst refusing it water. It might be increasingly hard to differentiate between professional work and that of a talented amateur, but who will know or care if the quality suffers from doing the job ourselves, when the bar of quality descends further into the devalued and uninspired depths of 'that'll do'?

When did professionalism, experience, artistry, craft and quality lose our respect? Have they been bracketed together with the word 'elitist'? Perhaps not – we doubtless still respect such things in themselves and the people who have them. Professionals are, after all, just amateurs who didn't quit. We just seem to balk at paying them more than just compliments for their time and effort, for some reason. A climate where loyalty is too high a price is one that no Professional can adapt themselves to. There will always be niche markets who will keep paying for individual and personalised services, but the majority of us may ultimately wake up to a world where everything is free and find that we are poorer for it. You can only get back what you put in, after all. 

Size Matters

November 5th, 2013

In 1913, Emily Davison stood in front of the King's horse as a protest for women's suffrage and was killed. A century later and many people say that they don't bother to vote – it's a waste of time. Why? For all that they legislate, so much seems beyond the reach of politicians. They no longer seem to be the prime shapers of our daily lives; Sir Tim Berners-Lee has done more for us than MP's. Politicians seem powerless, obedient to the more powerful dictates of 24/7 media, security against terrorism and the making of big money, rather than to the wishes of an electorate.

Other people say they no longer know who to vote for. Neither Left nor Right can offer a way forward that appeals any more. As Maurice Saatchi ponders, our experience of socialism didn't create wealth and our experience of free-market economics has soured to ballooning corporate greed and growing social inequality. Yet we still seem expected to choose between having either big government, or big companies. As Saatchi says – we no longer know which is worse. 

What do these two things have in common? One word: BIG. Whether you are the Citizen of an over-bearing State, or the Customer of a corporate conglomerate that straddles the globe, the end result is the same. There comes a point where size goes beyond inspiring and starts to feel crushing. You feel dwarfed, intimidated. What you face is simply too big to comprehend and digest. You feel your smallness and thence your powerlessness. You feel peripheral, at the bottom of a long chain of command, shut out. You can't help but ask what can one person do and end up by walking away. In such a big environment, who is going to miss you?

If there is a way forward that might hold some appeal, maybe it would be one with a healthy sense of proportion towards government and business in relation to people. Keeping both on a more human scale would mean people feel they belong and that they count – rather than belonging as yet another number to be counted. If government or business are at a size that people can comprehend, then it will feel workable and they will feel a willingness to engage.

Revolution/Evolution

June 17th, 2013

Britain is long overdue a Revolution, according to Kevin McKenna. You can't argue with the litany of Britain's current problems – social inequality, corporate tax dodging, police kettling of protesters, political corruption, child poverty, food banks and the penalising of the working poor: all in need of resolution. 

What's disquieting is the way that McKenna almost seems to be wishing for something more radical than the 'few riots' we have so far managed. A wistful tone in his article seems to say that if only we could just have a Revolution, then everything would be better. He doesn't glorify the 'casual brutalities' of the Russian and French Revolutions, but adds that 'at least the Russians and the French got there in the end.' Aside from the fact that Russia and France have problems of their own, it makes you wonder just what extremes he might deem necessary in order for Britain to get wherever it needs to get to. Whether McKenna sees Revolution as the skilled surgeon conducting major, clean and neat operations on Britain's body politic, or if he is prepared to accept some messiness and collateral damage, he should be careful what he wishes for. Revolution is something to shout about, but when it takes on a life of its own, a Revolutionary can't try applying the brakes without becoming a Reactionary.

McKenna asks why Britain never had a 1789 and 1917. Is it, as he suggests, because warfare and high taxes in the 18th and 19th centuries kept the populace distracted and placid? Another answer might be that responsible local government and civic minded social reformers (not bloody minded revolutionaries) helped to lift the poor out of poverty. Change has unfolded in Britain over the course of centuries, rather than in a few years: Magna Carta and de Montfort's Parliament; the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt; the Reformation, Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Glorious Revolution; the Industrial Revolution and the Great Reform Act; Lloyd George's People's Budget, the World Wars, Attlee's Welfare State and Thatcher's Free Market.

For McKenna, our adaptability makes us half-hearted amateurs, lacking the guts to drive change to the root by force as France and Russia did. Others see our embrace of change and willingness to compromise as a fortunate escape. French Ambassador Paul Cambon remarked in 1920; 'I have witnessed an English revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself… The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates; and this has been accomplished almost imperceptibly and without the loss of a single life'. McKenna is more frustrated than admiring, asking why 'we simply grumble and stage good-natured and orderly marches'. Would he rather see disorderly and violent mobs plundering the offices of Amazon and Google, lynching their shareholders and guillotining their CEO's? Obviously not, but he does wonder why we aren't all angrier. Why hasn't the direness of our situation and the distance of our politicians driven us to violence? Are we too doped with Royal Jubilees and Olympic Games? 

Might it be because we know that violent Revolution doesn't ultimately solve anything? The French guillotined King Louis and wound up with Napoleon. The Russians shot Tsar Nicholas and got Stalin. In Britain, zealotry is there to be sniggered at, not followed. McKenna's right when he says that we don't deserve a Revolution, but it's not because we're unworthy of it. Rather, it's because we know we deserve better, can do better and so can do without it. He should give us more credit.