Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Not About Heroes

This excellent production of Stephen MacDonald’s “Not about Heroes” tracks the relationship between poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The two men first met at Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland in 1917.

Sassoon had been sent to the hospital to silence his criticisms of the war. A decorated officer he became increasingly critical of the war, which he believed was being deliberately prolonged.

Owen is just pleased to be able to meet his writing hero face to face. The story unfolds, as it becomes clear that the student will soon outstrip his master when it comes to the art of poetry.  

Ben Ashton gets the body language of Owen spot on, the nervousness in the presence of the master, then a growing confidence as the two men develop a mutual understanding and affection.

James Howard plays the more confident Sassoon with an air of Noel Coward about him. He goes through the full ambit of emotions from joy at the success of his friend to feelings of guilt as to whether he should have done more to prevent Owen returning to the front where he is killed a week before the Armistice.

Not about Heroes is a fascinating play that centres around the relationship between the two men born out of poetry and the war. Both have a growing revulsion at the pointless loss of life and communicate through their poetry.

Some verse forms part of the dialogue, most notably Owen’s Anthem for Youth, but not so much that the whole thing just becomes about the poetry. The play marks a flowering of creative youth being celebrated against the dark backdrop of bloody war.

Both Sassoon and Owen returned to the front from Craiglockhart, the former being shot in the head but surviving. Owen was not so fortunate but the body of poetry he left at the age of just 24 amounts to more than most achieve in several lifetimes. The messages of that poetry are as relevant to our world today as they were to the fields of France 100 years ago.

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Friday, 14 November 2014

Compelling drama State Red addresses police killings in unique way

The excellent play, State Red, takes an original approach to deaths in police custody. The ingenius plot involving just four actors, revolves around the shooting of a black man by a black man, only the one doing the shooting is a police officer. Atiha Sen Gupta’s story starts when the shooter, Luke, returns home after a year away. During that time, he has been to see the family of the man he killed. He returns to a scene where his parents and best friend, and fellow police officer, Mathew, are returning from a police event – his father is going to be confirmed as commissioner the next day. The different layers of the play then address a myriad of issues, including police canteen culture, the hurt and suffering of the family of the dead man and perhaps uniquely the damage done to the police officer who did the shooting.

The play gets right below the surface of an ongoing issue in our society, which shows no sign of resolution, with more than 1,000 people dying in police custody since 1990. Families continue to lose loved ones and police officers continue to fail to be brought to account – the result more deaths. Even when inquest juries bring in unlawful killing verdicts nothing seems to happen. State Red addresses the issue in a truly unique way, bringing together so many elements of the problem in dramatic form. The only qualification is that I have never met a policeman like the character Luke but then maybe that is the point.

There are excellent performances from Samuel Anderson (of Dr Who fame), Maxine Finch, Geoff Leesley and Toby Wharton. Atiha Sen Gupta has certainly produced a great follow up to her debut play, What Fatima Did, which was performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 2009. State Red has been three years in gestation, no doubt drawing on the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in London in 2011 and subsequent events. This is a play well worth seeing, if you enjoy contemporary cutting edge drama dealing with real issues of social justice in today’s world.

*State Red plays at the Hampstead Theatre until 6 December



Wednesday, 12 November 2014

No need for drama on UKIP government - we're living it today

There is reportedly a drama being made for screening next year depicting Britain under a UKIP government. This does seem a bit of a waste of time, given that as far as I can see we already are living under such a regime.
The Tory Coalition follows UKIP policy to the letter with its anti-immigrant, anti-EU and anti-wind turbines positions.
Maybe the drama should develop what life under a Tory/UKIP government will look like in the longer term – skills shortages, low paid insecure work, rising unemployment, riots due to crushing poverty and the lights going out due to mismanagement of energy resources. The new scapegoats replacing immigrants in this brave new world will probably be the elderly

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Unjust world is insult to those who gave their tomorrows for our todays

One great sadness of remembrance is recalling how so many millions gave their lives for a better world that has never come to be. So today, the 85 richest people control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.  In this country, there are around 100 billionaires, whilst a million go to foodbanks. Billions are wasted on weapons systems like Trident, whilst millions struggle across the globe for the basics of life like water.

In the meantime, people vote for parties committed to the sort of intolerant policies on Europe and immigration that caused so many to go to fight in the world wars. The sad conclusion is that they may have given their tomorrows for our todays but we squander and insult that legacy by the way we behave today.

* published - Independent - 13/11/2014
Ilford Recorder and Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 13/11/2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Business taking Church for mugs in blueprint process

The real danger of the Blueprint for Better  Business process is that the Church could be being used as a fig leaf by corporations which in reality carry on with business as usual.

The five principles: be honest, be a good citizen, have a purpose, be responsive and be a guardian are not exactly challenging concepts – most businesses would sign up, if for no other reason than corporate profile.

Many would have more belief if the businesses in question signed up to some measurable changes such as commitment to collective bargaining and trade union recognition, a living wage, closing the pay gap between directors and workers, the outlawing of zero hour contracts and working toward shorter working weeks. The companies could also pay their taxes in this country.

The total lack of any representation in the blueprint process from the workers who actually produce the profits is a very basic flaw. One incidentally that is easily detectable, given a cursory reading of Catholic Social Thought on the relations between workers and employers. The occasional trade unionist has been invited along to make up the numbers on the odd panel but there has never been a proper platform provided for those who represent millions in this country.

If the business leaders really do find British trade union leaders so repellent, then maybe a German trade union leader could be invited. In Germany, the trade unions play a key role in partnership with business, working together for the common good. Maybe a German business leader as well to confirm and expand on that perspective.

The worry with the Blueprint process is that it comes over as a one sided exercise that the Church has been naively drawn into by business. If it is to continue and have meaning the process must be widened beyond a small clique of business leaders whose primary aim is no doubt self-interest.

* published in Tablet - 8/11/2014 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Cardinal Nichols attacks zero hours culture and children growing up in poverty

Cardinal Vincent Nichols has attacked the zero hours culture and increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty.

Addressing the fourth annual Caritas Social Action Network Parliamentary reception, Cardinal Nichols attacked a zero hours culture that provides “no reliable hours and therefore no guaranteed income.”
“The practical virtues of planning expenditure, purchasing intelligently and avoiding debt really are difficult in a situation like that,” said Cardinal Nichols. “Others remain on the minimum wage, with no opportunity for wage progression in their working environment. And despite good news on employment figures, there is still a gap for many between achievable incomes and general basic living costs.”
Previously Cardinal Nichols had expressed his support for a living wage, with Church employers now seeking to ensure that such levels of paid are maintained. Recent research from KPMG found that five million people in Britain (22% of the workforce) were being paid less than the living wage.)
“We know and everyone here acknowledges that most people want to get over the problems in their lives and seek and hold a job – a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families. They know that work is an expression of their dignity. It provides contact with others; it helps their health and spirit as well as their living expenses. And its reward should be a just wage,” said Cardinal Nichols, who underlined that “work is a person’s capital and should be treated with the same respect and protection as every other form of capital, be it property or wealth.”
He then lamented that "a significant number of children are growing up in poverty, despite having at least one parent in work."
Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles declared that it was "impossible to think about social care without a vibrant Catholic caring network."
Pickles though noted the irritation caused in government by the criticism from the Church about the bedroom tax and the growing use of foodbanks.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Food banks must not become institutionalised in a land of billionaires

The news of a rising number of people using the foodbank in Waltham Forest mirrors what is happening across the country.

The question that should be asked is why in a country of more than 100 billionaires are more than a million people going to foodbanks.

The growing use of foodbanks runs hand in hand with an austerity agenda that has seen the pay of the directors of the FTSE 100 companies going up by 21% in the past year (Income Data Services), compared to 2% for the rest of the population.

The last five years has seen a visible shift of more than a million people from secure reasonably paid work into low paid insecure work. It is these developments in the workplace compounded by cuts to benefits that have forced more and more people toward foodbanks. How can this be situation acceptable in such a rich society?

There is the danger that the foodbank will become institutionalised as they have in Canada, where 20 years ago they began to dismantle the welfare state in a similar way to what has been occurring in this country.

Foodbanks were introduced as a stop gap, yet today they are more prevalent than ever in Canada. It is good to support foodbanks but we must never lose sight of the question as to why in such a rich countries they need to exist in the first place?

* published Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 30/10/2014