Aimless or Neo-Totalitarian? The Empty Persecution of Laura Kuenssberg

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So… 38 Degrees have dropped their petition to have BBC Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, sacked for alleged bias against Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

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The petition kept popping up on my Facebook feed – often posted by people I consider to be friends, and, just as often, accompanied by offensive and indirectly sexist comments. I didn’t just disagree – as a writer, and occasional journalist myself – I was viscerally alarmed.

I complained three times to 38 Degress about the petition, but despite the pledges on their feedback pages, never received any kind of acknowledgement or reply.

I argued that it brought the campaigning organisation into disrepute. The sexism and misogyny was indeed a primary issue, but sadly neither David Babbs – nor the short sighted and/or neo-totalitarian types who signed this thing – understand the fundamental problem with targeting a specific journalist – regardless of gender. Personally – speaking as someone who follows unhealthy amounts of political journalism – she doesn’t appear to be in any way biased. She’s a journalist equally likely to report on splits in the Tory party (as she has done many, MANY times; there is far more coverage of right wing splits in relation to the EU referendum at the moment in the UK), the Lib-Dems, UKIP etc as she would with the very real splits in the Labour party. She’s a political editor – it’s her job to report this stuff, the problem won’t go away if Laura Kuenssberg doesn’t mention it. Not when senior party members are battling it out on Twitter.

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The Labour Party hardly needs Laura Kuenssberg to advertise their splits…

But this isn’t the point.

If someone watching a BBC News item is unhappy with with the way something is reported, then the thing to do is to take it up with BBC News, and question editorial policy overall (by the way, they will reply to you). That’s perfectly fine, and the right of the UK license fee payer. Indeed that kind of public accountability is fundamental to the way the BBC works. You certainly don’t have that kind of direct accountability in most other areas of journalism.

BUT – and it’s a massive swollen arse of a ‘but(t)’ – targeting individual journalists is a completely different matter.

Think about it – especially anyone reading this blog who signed this thing – what is the BBC supposed to do? Let’s just imagine that 38 Degrees had submitted this petition. How would you expect the BBC to react?

Treat it with the contempt it deserves, hopefully. They would have to.

Because obviously if the BBC did start sacking journalists because of public pressure exerted by specific interest groups, what message would that send?

The reason totalitarian regimes censor, sack, blacklist, imprison – or even execute – individual journalists who report or say things they don’t like, is to send a message to every other journalist that the reporting they do must fit a pre-determined political agenda – otherwise they’ll be out of a job. It’s a form of intimidation and bullying from which anyone who believes in free speech – and indeed, a fair and just society – should absolutely disassociate themselves.

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Are these the values of the new activist left? I sincerely hope not.

But there’s something else going on here. For most of my lifetime the most vociferous braying – accusing the BBC of bias – has come from the right of British politics, insistent that the BBC is staffed by an army of vegetarian, politically correct pinkos (amongst which I count myself – although I’m not a vegetarian).

Ironically, as someone who has spent much of his professional career working in a range of capacities for the organisation, there is actually some truth in this – ! – although BBC journalists and other creatives take a lot of pride in their ability to stick rigorously to the corporation’s much vaunted principles of impartiality. Perhaps too much sometimes. When I first worked for the BBC, I spent a day observing at the World Service and was moved to tears by the dedication of the journalists there to report fairly on regimes who had certainly not treated them fairly before they had come to the UK. The BBC doesn’t always get it right, but there’s something infectious and almost obsessional about those values within the organisation, certainly, as I have experienced it.

But these days, the main chorus of disapproval comes from certain elements within the Corbyn left – not Corbyn himself, I hasten to add.

So what’s this about?  Is there something just plain nasty lurking here? Well… there may be in places – there’s definitely a few old Trots and Militant types who have hitched themselves to the Corbyn bandwagon – but I genuinely don’t think that’s the issue.

I think this is about a lack of purpose at the heart of the Corbyn project. It’s a movement that has lost its way to such a degree that it feels it can be shaken off course by a BBC journalist reporting on internal party splits. Surely if Corbyn had anything about him, he would be leading the agenda, and a few negative stories would be neither here, nor indeed, there. Cameron is repeatedly ridiculed by factions on the left and right, and I would argue that one reason he is such a canny survivor – and indeed successful – as a politician is because he refuses to be rattled by such stuff. Love him, hate him – he’s ‘the guy’ and he’s getting on with it. Plus he’s very good at laughing at himself.

Jeremy Corbyn has an oft stated objective of motivating an unseen army of people who currently don’t vote. So far, so noble. But check out what happened yesterday (Wednesday 11th May 2016) at Prime Minister’s Questions. He led on two questions about the ‘Workers Posted Directive’.

No, I had no idea what that meant either.

Neither did Andrew Neil nor Jo Coburn, on the BBC’s Daily Politics, who had to Google it live on air.

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Jo Coburn & Andrew Neil as bemused as ‘Martin from Stockport’

Kuenssberg to her credit did actually know something about it – and thought it was a decent – if obscure – issue to raise. Jo Coburn then said they were getting lots of texts and tweets expressing similar confusion, and read out an email from ‘Martin in Stockport’ declaring that he ‘was a political junkie but still had no idea what the Labour Leader was talking about’. Yup folks, that was me.

That detail aside, it’s a visceral demonstration of how lost Corbyn is.

When people say we have to stop carping and get behind the Labour Leadership – I ask: ‘Get behind what?’  Corbyn’s stinging campaign to support the Workers Posted Directive – which may well be important, but apparently affects 0.7% of EU workers?  Seriously?  Even after Andrew Neil explained it I still didn’t understand it. Are we supposed to believe that the serried ranks of the disenfranchised will be stirred to the barricades by Jezza’s uncompromising stance on the issue?

‘What do we want???’
‘The Workers Posted Directive!!’
‘When do we want it???’
‘Back-dated to April 1st!!!’

But worse was to come. In the same PMQs, after wishing David Attenborough a happy birthday, Corbyn omitted to congratulate Sadiq Khan for his amazing (centrist?) victory in London last week – leaving a back bencher (whose name I can’t remember), Tim Fallon (leader of the Liberal Democrats) and indeed David Cameron himself to hand out the plaudits to Khan.

Here was a golden opportunity to big-up the broad Labour tent and absolutely slam Cameron for backing Zac Goldsmith’s dog whistle racism last week. But for some reason, Corbyn opted to go big on the Workers Posted Directive… and snub his new, extremely popular Labour mayor on the week’s most high profile platform for any leader of the opposition.

This wasn’t just missing an open goal…. this was missing an open goal when the other team had pissed off to the pub and left the field completely undefended.

If you are reading this – and you are someone who believes passionately in a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn – then perhaps concentrate on developing that message into something coherent around which we can all coalesce. The electorate don’t owe him their support. And I, as a (more or less) lifelong Labour member don’t owe Jezza my support. Wasting your energy trying to get a female journalist sacked is not only reactionary in the extreme – but it demonstrates that there isn’t enough going on at the heart of the project. If Corbyn was truly inspirational, then you wouldn’t care what Laura Kuenssberg said. You’d be selling his message… whatever that is. I mean, I really don’t know any more.

Winners  don’t complain about the opposition, or the crowd, or, indeed, the commentators. They win because they are good at what they do, and they rise above any obstacles put in their way.

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The Marmoset Picks The Nits Out Of Taxation

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WARNING!  SOME OF THE FOLLOWING IS ABOUT TAX LAW!!!
PS THERE AREN’T MANY JOKES

Some years ago, when I was pulling in a more than decent six figure whack from my travails in the TV writing industry, my lovely accountant (you know who you are!) lobbied me pretty intensively with regard to ‘incorporating’ myself. For those unfamiliar with this concept – essentially it meant turning myself into a company – Martin Jameson Ltd – subject to beneficial rates of corporation tax – and then paying myself from the dividends, thereby reducing my tax liability by thousands of pounds every year.

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All this from just a few episodes of Emmerdale Farm!!

This was a completely legal form of tax avoidance – although I think the tax benefits have shifted a bit these days – and a commonplace amongst many media professionals. It went on all the time and no one thought much about it.

Well I thought about it – very seriously – but on balance I decided that a) it sounded like an awful lot of hassle (which would have been one reason my lovely accountant was keen as he would ‘take care of it’… for a very competitive fee of course) and b) as a democratic socialist earning a decent fist, I actually wanted to pay my fair share of tax from which my health care, kids’ education, state infrastructure etc was paid. So far, so virtuous.

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This is what I looked like when I decided not to incorporate

Many of my contemporaries – including several who would regularly tout their working class lefty credentials – chose to exploit this completely legal method of reducing their personal tax liability.

Of course all self employed media hobbits exploit a well established system of tax avoidance.  We run our own businesses, work from home, provide all our own working materials, pay for all our own research, buy our own heel balm and hairy foot coiffure etc etc… and so quite reasonably the costs of these items are not subject to tax at whatever is our highest rate. The list of things we can legitimately claim for is decided upon and constantly reviewed by the bods at HMRC.

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Hobbits can legitimately claim for foot care products

But tax avoidance it most definitely is – as opposed to tax evasion, which is illegal – and until a couple of years ago no one batted an eyelid. But now multi-nationals are keeping their patents off shore and their UK franchises pay royalties to those ‘parent’ companies equal to any taxable profits here where they make their cash – and hospitals are starved of it. And Prime Ministers’ fathers set up – completely legal – offshore funds, and offer their kids a chunk, who profit from the tax free status, and everyone goes MEME crazy on Facebook.

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So is one form of tax avoidance ‘better’ than another – more, or less, morally acceptable?

Going back to the arcane tediosity of being a self employed scribbler, did I, having made my goody-two-shoes decision to pay self employed income tax as per normal, stand sanctimoniously in judgement of my colleagues who chose a less taxing route?

No. Absolutely not. It was completely legal and a matter of personal choice. Pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and if Caesar says incorporating is ok, then clearly Caesar has factored that in. Caesar can make that illegal if he wants to. However, interestingly, in recent years, anyone openly declaring their left wing credentials is a lot more wary about going down the incorporation path. It’s starting to be seen as a bit iffy.

So what about the other more aggressive forms of tax avoidance? Are they ‘worse’?

Well, the argument runs that the problem with the ‘Starbucks’ strategy, or the offshore tax haven strategy is that, although they are legal, they are essentially inequitable. You can only do these things if you have shed loads of dosh in the first place – so therefore the law is structured so that the very wealthy have opportunities to reduce their tax liability that aren’t available to the rest of us on more meagre incomes – even the hobbits.

So is it right to lambast those wealthy types for their moral vacuity, hypocrisy, greed etc for exploiting these tax loopholes? Should David Cameron be drummed out of office for some shares in his Dad’s company he owned ten years ago?

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‘Thanks for the money, Dad’ – ‘Keep it under your Panama hat, son’

Of course, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and it’s certainly emblematic of the way that inequality is written into the statutes of our society at a very deep level, but I can’t help thinking that the individuals aren’t really the issue.

This is about law in a democratic society.

I’ve attempted, here, to find some kind of dividing line to delineate where I think tax avoidance moves from the sensible to the poisonously inequitable – but I’ve certainly met people who are astonished, even outraged that I can set a percentage of my telephone costs off against tax, or travel for work purposes, or paper, or books and DVDs I use in my research, theatre and cinema trips, many other things…  Depending on your starting point, everybody’s bottom line in the tax-sand is different.

Which is why we have a democracy, and we vote in a government, and we accept that the majority wins, whether we agree with them or not, and they get to make the laws for the time they are in office. Democracy isn’t about taking EVERYONE’s opinions into account. That’s chaos. We do the voting thing precisely to avoid that chaos.

So if we don’t like the way Starbucks behaves, or the Ian Camerons of this world, then, sure, have a pop, but the only practical, useful, meaningful thing is to lobby – in order actually DO something about what happens next – to change the law itself.

The problem with throwing mud at someone for exploiting the law as it stands, or stood in the past, is that then we are asking individuals, or companies, to make a subjective decision about what tax they should pay, as if there’s a sort of instinctive right and wrong about this stuff. It’s predicated on the idea that there is some kind of natural ‘common sense’, a moral law, that everyone’s agreed upon.

There isn’t, and they aren’t. We aren’t!

And then it all gets mixed up with the background radiation that is social media’s distaste for anyone who has any cash at all – ! – unless, of course, it’s someone they like, such as a footballer or an artistic creative. But that’s a whole other blog…

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The German cartoonist George Grosz would have flourished in the age of social media!

It’s so very easy to be morally self-righteous, but moral self-righteousness is fundamentally subjective, so in the end we just have to decide as a country what we want to do and legislate for it – and not be surprised when individuals or companies work within the laws our democracy provides for them.

Although, of course some of us do make that subjective choice…

Excuse me while I go and polish my halo.

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The Marmoset reacts to Super Tuesday

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The morning after Super Tuesday, this very British Marmoset doesn’t know whether to laugh…

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Or cry.

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Whatever your politics, there’s something almost sad – even worrying – about seeing a major political party with a great historical tradition reduced to a laughing stock, as it is hi-jacked by a naive grass roots movement – albeit driven by angry disenfranchisement – drooling at their idol, fiercely oblivious to any criticism – demanding that they enter the next election led by a divisive figure, mocked by the public at large, and despised by almost all of his elected colleagues currently exercising their democratically elected mandate in the national government.

And then, of course, there’s the Republican Party in the US…

It’s a rum old world.

Home isn’t where the Inkheart is…

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Back in June, anyone following this blog might have spotted that this particular marmoset wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Walter Meierjohann’s inaugural production – The Funfair – at Manchester’s newly opened flagship gallery, cinema, theatre complex, Home.

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Not that it looks like a Swedish interiors store or anything…

Six months on, how goes it at the Home that is in fact no one’s home?

Come on own up? What wazzock focus group came up with ‘Home’ as a name for a theatre? The one thing I don’t want a theatre to be! Come out, come out, wherever you are! I will find you and when I do I will subject you to slow and painful torture. Where was I? Oh yes… how is Home getting along?

Well. I attend the five screen cinema on a regular basis. The programming is superb and the projection and sound are flawless. The screenings are always well attended. Clearly a huge success and a major improvement on the old Cornerhouse screens. Tick.

The gallery isn’t my thing…

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Even an arthound like me found this exhibition uninviting. Can’t think why.

…but seems to be doing ok from what I can tell; there are usually people wandering around it. Query tick..?

As a Home member, I get £1.50 off cinema tickets and ten per cent off food in the restaurant which has a more than decent menu (yummy beef ragu if you like your shredded brisket). Tick and tick.

So what about the theatre itself?

Watching (the first half) of Inkheart, the building’s first Christmas show for children and young people, barely two thirds full (Christmas week) with an entirely unresponsive audience, was a truly depressing experience. From the bottom of my heart I do not want this still-new theatre to fail – it needs to succeed – I want it to be a place of theatrical excellence, adventure and entertainment. Not a Home – but a Palace of Delights!

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The Funfair had enigmatic clowns in it which I confess I am predisposed to dislike

My old boss at the BBC used to say that you should always be able to find five positive things to say about any production you see, no matter how much you dislike it.

I’m sorry, Chris, I just can’t – but I promise you, Dear Reader, that I did not go there to hate it. I always go to the theatre hoping to be thrilled and transported. ALWAYS. Otherwise what’s the point?

Children’s Drama is to Theatre what veterinary science is to human medicine. A vet can treat a human being, but a GP shouldn’t be let loose on a pet. The imperatives of children’s theatre will expose any director’s shortcomings – or illustrate that they have a vibrant, empathetic theatrical heart beating away under the pretensions that might stifle their adult work. Harness those skills for the most uncompromising of all audiences – kids – and that director will shine at everything they do. It is the ultimate theatrical litmus test.

So I’m scrabbling round for those five things, but like a marmoset picking tics off his mate after they’ve been de-flead, I’m not getting anything tasty.

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Entertainment marmoset style

As a preface to everything I say, I want to emphasise that I’m not blaming the cast. I don’t know any of them personally, and I have no reason to suppose that they aren’t all perfectly good actors in any other situation. But here, they looked entirely lost, and, at times, as if they had given up hope, delivering lines as if they were a random assembly of words… language devoid of all meaning. It was quite surreal at times. After twenty minutes I leaned across to my companion and whispered: ‘Have you any idea what’s going on?’

Like a low energy bulb, my friend James was unable to throw light onto the situation.

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Eco friendly but lacking powers of illumination

Only Rachel Atkins as ‘eccentric-woman-in-France-with-a-gun’ (I had absolutely no idea who the character was) seemed to be up for the fight, throwing her heart and soul behind every meaningless sentence.

First up, the script, from Cornelia Funke’s children’s novel, adapted by director Meierjohann and Stephen Sharkey, showed not the faintest inkling of the responsibilities and specialist skills a writer needs when producing work for young people.

Broadly speaking, it’s about a girl – Meggie – whose Dad can make books come alive just by reading them. (Seriously, books coming alive? Toys coming alive? Fairy tales coming alive? The lack of originality of the idea makes me feel physically tired.) He demonstrates this by reading a passage from Treasure Island after which gold doubloons fall from the sky. He then picks up The Arabian Nights… which concerned me as quite a lot of that is about men growing supersized genitalia.

So it’s about Meggie… Or is it about a Dad who can make books come alive who has a daughter who follows him around asking questions and standing watching for pages on end?

There’s a bald Richard O’Brian stylie villain called Capricorn who wants something or other which involves destroying books, or something… Then there are two ‘broker’s men‘ with cod Italian accents. Why? No idea. Perhaps it was in the spirit of internationalism. Anyway the idea seemed to be that the accents alone would be hysterically funny.

They weren’t. No one laughed.

Add into the mix a post apocalyptic punk called Dustfinger…  There’s always at least one post apocalyptic punk in Mr Meierjohann’s productions. And a Narrator who was mic’d for some reason and described things we could see for ourselves… oh yes and a comedy Arab/Indian (?) Aladdin type with another funny accent.

Note to Arts Council, Manchester Council and the Association of Greater Manchester Arts Authorities: Is it really acceptable in 2015 to have an all white cast (one actor looked like he might possibly be of dual heritage) and have the one character of colour played by a white actor doing a racial stereotype?

So back to Meggie and her Dad. Whose story is it? The script has no idea. Usually in children’s drama you put the child – or the child equivalent – in the driving seat, pushing the action. You don’t leave them as not much more than a passenger on a journey, the objective of which I defy anyone to describe coherently. As I say, it was something to do with books…?

Oh and while we’re at it, the whole ‘book’ schtick…

Ok, let’s assume we’re all agreed that books are a GOOD THING… but wait a sec. This is 2015. What do we mean by books? Do we mean the tangible physical things with pages? Or is it the words and the content and the ideas – after all, more and more people read from Kindles and computers these days. Are we saying that absorbing literature through other delivery systems is somehow lesser? And what about other ways of absorbing literature? Is drama ‘lesser’? Films? Television?

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It’s 2015, you can’t assume that the ‘book’ as an iconic object means the same thing it did fifteen years ago

There was an assumption in this show that the physical book was the significant thing rather than the content… or at least these ideas were completely confused in the script. The reality of modern technology, and the means of delivery wasn’t addressed (by the way, the characters had smart phones, so it wasn’t as if it was set in a pre-Kindle age). It would have been really interesting to find a way to dramatise this; to look at why the book itself has an inherent value. Without addressing this, the play was throwing around a wishy washy pick ‘n’ mix of ‘worthy’ ideas, and actually came across as a form of alienating cultural snobbery.

If this seems pernickety – and perhaps it is – it’s because the story was so weak, and spent so much time signposting its ‘values’ that this audience member was forced to examine whether those ideas actually hung together.

No single character seemed to be driving the action. It was impossible to understand clearly what was at stake, or for whom, nor what the quest was. There is a missing mother to find, but Meggie’s loss of her mother is never dramatised (certainly not in the first half). Meggie is an entirely static character. She loves books at the beginning. She still loves books at the interval (which was as far as I got).  I suspect she was affirmed of her love of books at the end too. Nothing at stake. No arc. An entirely flat, aimless narrative.

This lack of focus persisted in every scene. Stuff sort of ‘happened’ but you had no idea where to look on stage, nor what anybody’s objective was at any point. It was as if it had been written and directed by someone who had been told about a mysterious art form called ‘theatre’ but had never quite got the hang of what ‘theatre’ actually is. So there is a stage, actors and a set, and some lines to say, but they have been assembled like a Billy bookcase without the instructions.

These narrative techniques can be learnt. What I would like to see from Walter Meierjohann is that he has an awareness that he has some way to go with this.

I wonder if he sees theatre as a plastic art rather than a temporal one. It would certainly explain why his shows lack pace, shape or tension, and have the air of ‘presentations’ rather than stories.

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Drama is expressed in relation to the progression of time, not simply the presentation of images on a stage.

He’s been (anecdotally) reported in public forums stating that (new) writing isn’t a primary concern for him at Home, that he sees his brief as being more of a theatre maker (although how you do the latter without a passion for the former escapes me).

Nowhere does the failure to respect the power of the word (monumentally ironic in a story about the value of books) open its Nietzschean abyss more than in this production’s failure to demonstrate anything resembling a sense of humour. As with The Funfair, there were occasional ‘gag’ lines… (if you count a passing reference to Shaddap-You-Face by Joe Dolce as a gag) but every single one in that first hour failed to land. And the more the gags tanked, the more you felt the actors’ confidence draining before your eyes.

Each time another ‘gag’ approached, the actors’ delivery accelerated as if they wanted to skip over the oncoming tumbleweed as quickly as possible… not helped by the cod Italian broker’s men. Apart from the fact that I couldn’t really work out who they were supposed to be, the accents meant that what lines they had were hard to understand and the gags such as they were got lost amidst the garbled vowels.

Why? WHY????? Why were they comedy Italians?

Breathe.

Let’s talk about the set.

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The opening image is a striking one. A huge rotating pile of books – maybe fifteen feet high in the centre of the stage. Great, I thought, that’s exciting…
…until it isn’t, because it stays there for the whole show (or at least the whole first half – I’m only reviewing that hour of the show – I’ll keep saying it, perhaps the second half was brilliant).

The problem with having a mountain of books in the centre of your stage is that it actually makes the playing space unusable. It takes ages to climb up and down the thing (the actors looking visibly nervous at times as they searched for footholds) and once you’re up there you can’t move. The book mountain is so big that when the actors are down on the stage itself they are either forced into ugly lines at the side or at the front, or they have to play upstage to whatever poor bugger is perched on the top of the books. The situation is made worse when a bloody great trap is opened downstage centre, leaving the actors literally nowhere to go but to hang around on the periphery like unwanted interlopers on a stage full of stuff and holes. As a piece of design it’s completely inept, demonstrating a woeful lack of basic stage craft by either the director, the designer or both.

And don’t get me started on the use of projection in place of painted cloths or physical structures – we saw a bit of it in Funfair as well – a visual trope that dominates the stage but simultaneously renders it flat, sterile and artless. Oh this isn’t some luddite prejudice on my behalf – it’s about the basics of stage craft. If you’re projecting an image onto a massive cloth, it necessitates a large amount of evenly distributed light. This flattens out the stage picture and makes it impossible to establish a spatial focus on the stage, nor any tactile sense of atmosphere. There’s no way the performers can interact with it. It’s no more emotionally engaging than the wallpaper you have on your computer home screen.

Finally, what’s the deal with Walter M’s productions that two out of the three I’ve seen have featured young women in tight shorts? There may have even been some tight shorted women in Romeo and Juliet, I don’t remember. I certainly disliked it in Funfair but in this children’s show it seems completely inappropriate.

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What’s with the young women in shorts?

Ok. Enough already. I think you get that I didn’t enjoy my evening, but I can’t sign off from this review without reference to the ‘fight’. If anyone reading this has seen the show, can they explain that to me, please?

So about three quarters of the way through the first half, the characters have a fight (absolutely no idea why) but for some reason they do it like the kind of mark-through that a fight director asks for in rehearsal before acting the combat for real. They just stand there doing these half hearted fist movements, with badly timed reactions. It seems to go on for ages and I actually had to cover my eyes at that point.

Sorry, sorry, one more thing….  Did I mention the completely random fire dance? No? Again if anyone’s seen the show and can tell me what that was about please feel free to contribute.

Okay, I hold my hands up, a blog dedicated to a demolition job on one show is not a dignified use of social media. But the reason I feel so strongly is because it does speak to something bigger.

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The last time I saw professional theatre in Manchester of this low standard, was when Ben Twist was running Contact Theatre back in the late 1990s. It has the same pretentious, dead hearted negation of the joys of stagecraft… which ultimately sounded the death nell for that fantastic venue as a major producing house in the city (although it has since been reborn with a different brief). That cannot be allowed to happen here.

Mr Meierjohann clearly has high aspirations to push the theatrical jiffy bag and challenge our expectations. When the regime at Home is discussed in theatrical circles it is sometimes said that those who express criticism are being too British, too conservative, too resistant to the ‘European’ style of stage direction that Meierjohann is bringing to Manchester. Well, for the record I’m about as pro-European as it gets and I’ve enjoyed all sorts of amazing international work over my three decades in the entertainment industries. I contend that if Walter were from Swindon he would simply be written off as not quite up to the job. If anything, the ‘European’ tag is used as an excuse, and confuses a presentational style that has the patina of ‘other’ and ‘sophistication’, with the misplaced belief that this ‘otherness’ somehow negates the need for coherent narrative, structure, focus, content, passion, humour, elation and beauty.

Having made a sad comparison to the fate of the old Contact Theatre, a few years earlier, at that same venue, Bryan Elsley adapted and directed a gripping and visceral production of Alan Garner’s Elidor as their 1992 Christmas show. This was theatrical storytelling for a young adult audience at its very finest. It is possible to do amazing things when offering an alternative to the normal fare on offer for family audiences in the season of Panto and Jacqueline Wilson and spinoffs from TV and CBBC/CBeebies favourites.

What Bryan (more famous for Skins and the TV adaptation of The Crow Road) has, is a highly attuned sense of narrative – of the temporal nature of storytelling – of how to connect to an audience and take us into a world that we just don’t want to leave. Elidor was magical, frightening (in the best Christmas ghost story sense of the word), contemporary, and entirely involving. I watched a cynical crowd of reluctant year nines and tens from Rusholme and Moss Side turn into a thrilled buzzing throng as they left the theatre on that cold night in December 92. I’ve never forgotten it. I think this is what Walter Meierjohann is aspiring to, but sadly he is never going to realise it until he starts to respect the skills required to achieve it. He may sincerely believe that he already does, but on the evidence of three productions I see no sign that he respects the imperatives of narrative story telling, nor the nature of scene structure, nor design, nor how to use a stage, nor how to guide the audience’s eyes and their emotions by shaping his staging to bring focus and intention to every moment of the action.

So do I have some personal gripe with Mr M? I’ve never met the man. I hold no personal beef. I don’t need a job from him; he’s never turned me down for a job… but he is holding the reins to what should be the most important producing venue in Manchester – equal to or surpassing The Royal Exchange. Theatres are resource hungry, expensive, valuable places, and if they are paid for by a community, if they belong to the community, then I believe with all my municipal heart that it’s fair and right to hold them to account.

On the Home website the venue describes itself in the following terms:

‘...our mission is to make a new HOME for curiosity seekers, for lovers of the dramatic, the digital and the deeply engaging; for radicals and reciprocators.

I have a degree, a post graduate diploma and thirty-two years professional experience and I have absolutely no idea what that means. Except that it alliterates. What I do know is that Home’s current artistic director programmes like a man who has never had to worry about the cost of babysitting, or parking, or think about how attractive a show has to be for a normal person making leisure choices when resources are limited and day to day life is stressful and exhausting. And if he doesn’t understand that, then he doesn’t understand people – and it’s unlikely that he’s going to produce theatre that will strike a chord in the heart of the community he is there to serve.

If I seem harsh it’s because this is our money he’s spending, our resources he’s using, and our artistic landscape he’s shaping… but so far, it’s not a landscape I could in any way call Home.

But, hey, at least there weren’t any enigmatic clowns.

Sad Clown

 

The Corbyn Delusion (and how to un-delude it)

Make no mistake about it, Thursday night’s by-election result in Oldham West and Royton is a good result, and more than that, a fantastic relief. The thought that UKIP could seriously dent – or even destroy – Michael Meacher’s 14,700 majority was a chilling one, and, in retrospect, a huge insult to the people of Oldham who are, thank God, far more sensible than that.

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Jim McMahon – at the count in Oldham on Thursday Night

The relatively high by-election turnout on a damp December night was also a testament to the dedication and hard work of an energised grass roots – and no small credit should go to the activist heart of the Jeremy Corbyn project for giving Jim McMahon’s campaign added electoral jizz.

As a paid up Labour member based in the UK’s North West, I’d heard that there was genuine concern on the ground that the result might be close (although actually losing the seat never seemed particularly likely to me) and I would have been there campaigning had I not been on simultaneous 24/7 writing deadlines. Whatever my feelings about the internal schisms in the Party, only someone maniacally clinging to the idea of apocalypse as a necessary catalyst for change would think that a UKIP victory (or near victory) would be any kind of desirable outcome.

But I – along with most other commentators, both local and national – expected a reduced majority for Labour, and that this would plunge an eviscerating knife into bowels of a party already convulsed in a kind of political anaphylactic shock.

It didn’t happen. So I can’t grope my way through the entrails. I’ll have to do this laparoscopically. Sorry… I’ve been writing Holby City, my imagination is cluttered with the verbal detritus of surgical drama.

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Rooting through the entrails, Holby style

On Friday morning, Jeremy Corbyn dropped into Oldham for a few minutes (literally a few minutes) to declare that the victory showed how ‘strong, deep-rooted and broad’ the support was for Labour ‘not just in Oldham but across the country’. Ok, after the week he’d had the guy’s absolutely allowed to big things up for the party faithful who busted their arses getting that result despite the very public domestic that has been playing out throughout the campaign, clicking away on the political geiger counter like an increasingly demented Dolphin.

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If only the Labour Party could be like this

But ‘strong, deep-rooted and broad’? ‘Not just in Oldham but across the country’? Really?

Turnout was down from 60% at the General Election in May to 40% on Thursday. That’s actually pretty good for a by-election in a safe seat – and when I say safe, it was Labour’s 53rd safest seat back in May – so losing it was never really on the cards, but equally holding it isn’t in itself a sea-change.

Labour’s majority was down from 14,700 to 10,700 but with the reduced turnout, and a collapse in the Tory vote, Labour’s share rose from 55% under Meacher to 62% for Jim McMahon. UKIP’s vote also fell but their share went up 3%. The Tory vote was nowhere, falling from over 8000 to just over 2500, their share dropping by half.

Numbers, numbers, numbers. Lies, damned lies and statistics. With so many counter variables, do they tell us anything?

The most significant shift is in the Tory vote. This is the key. If those voters were swapping sides and moving over to vote Labour then this might give credence to Corbyn’s claim. But if the Tory vote just stayed at home (why bother schlep out to a polling booth when you know it won’t really count?) with a few of them opting for a tactical UKIP shift then in reality the result is pretty much the status quo for a safe labour seat. The contest was always described as a two horse race between Labour and UKIP, and the fact that both parties deployed significant resources is reflected in the increased share for both parties and relatively concomitant lift in turnout.

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McMahon is no Corbynista

So the core labour – working class – vote didn’t collapse – which is a good thing – but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that the movement in voter share was down to an absence of Tory vote rather than a significant realignment from right to left. This is crucial because it takes us back to the core argument at the heart of the leadership campaign over the summer.

When Facebook and Twitter are peppered with ‘Huh! Not so unelectable now!’ comments my heart sinks because it feels as if we’ve got absolutely nowhere. Although it’s reasonable (and reassuring) to conclude that the Jezzmeister didn’t have a negative effect on the core Labour vote, neither is it possible to say that he had a positive effect, especially in a seat where so many local factors were at play. Attempting to extrapolate the result across the country is morale boosting wishful thinking at best; dangerously naive at worst.

The papers are keen to say that Corbyn’s critics have been silenced, but it seems to me that it would be disastrous if holding on to a safe Labour seat was seen by the party as case closed. Winning a by-election is not the same as electability as the graveyard of British by-election history has shown us again and again. Yes, it tells us we can win when we work together. McMahon’s victory shows us that. He’s no Corbynista but he benefited from the enthusiasm of the new entry to the party. Perhaps in the spirit of working together we can re-examine the crucial obstacles ahead of us.

During the leadership campaign much discussion revolved around the electoral imperative of winning the centre ground. This mathematical necessity has never ceased to be true, despite the oft repeated mantra that anyone who suggested such a thing – including li’l ol’ me –  was a ‘red Tory’, a ‘closet Tory’ ‘pandering to the neoliberal austerity hegemony’ and in one case with regard to myself ‘a cartoon monkey’. No, I didn’t understand that one either.

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Apparently my views on UK opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, mean I am like this chap

Apparently to voice dissent also means I am expressing venom, glee, stuttering anger, braying delight, and in more than one instance that I am incapable of expressing myself coherently.

Do you notice something about these responses? None of them – none of them – are arguments. They are all character assassinations designed to undermine the integrity of the person who dares to dissent.

Ah, but doesn’t entitling a blog ‘The Corbyn Delusion’ imply that all those who support The Big C are ‘delusional’? Isn’t that character assassination in itself? Pot, kettle, teenager’s bedroom.

Well it would be if I left it there, but great though holding on to Oldham definitely is, I’m concerned that it runs the risk of embedding a false hope, faith, and, I’m sad to say, delusion, even deeper. The notion of delusion lies in the mismatch of faith against reality. It’s not an attack on the integrity of those who hold those opinions. The distinction is crucial.

This is a forensic analysis of how Corbyn still doesn’t meet the job spec – of how he doesn’t, and can’t satisfy the objectives, the trust, the hope placed in him by his devoted and utterly sincere supporters. Now, with this by-election under our belt, it’s time to look at the reality of this without resorting to personal slurs for simply expressing the opinion.

(Although having said that, in the wake of Corbyn’s leadership victory in September I read numerous posts on Facebook and Twitter claiming that Corbyn didn’t even need the Labour Party. He could win a general election single handed. The People’s Prime Minister!! Seriously, these politically illiterate posts were popping up all over the place, and I reserve the right to call their authors entirely delusional. If Oldham shows us anything, it’s the power of a highly organised, experienced party machinery.)

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The People’s Prime Minister – so popular he can win without the Labour Party?

But back to the forensic analysis.

The only material response I’ve heard that addresses the electoral maths is to say that there is a hidden electorate of disenfranchised voters, who aren’t as yet registered, or who were too apathetic to get to the polling booth in 2015. Get these people marking their crosses and the 2020 election is all but in the bag for our Jezzer. For the reasons already outlined, I don’t think the Oldham result addresses this either. With the exception of one or two pieces by Owen Jones, I have rarely heard or read any argument that talks about persuading people to vote Labour, or winning over those who have deserted us. Effectively those people are lost, traitors, immoral, selfish, greedy, sell-outs, frightened, stupid. They are at fault. Their votes are not needed or wanted.

On the assumption that Mr Corbyn has a normal emotional intelligence,  and that he is actually learning something new, his few weeks in office will have started to tickle his nostrils. This isn’t about opposition – it’s about government. To fulfil his much vaunted, record breaking mandate he will have to look the centre ground (Middle England or whatever one might like to call it) in the eye, and say something they want to hear.

Much has been made of the disconnect between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the membership who voted for Corbyn so resoundingly to be their leader. But this result tells us that there is a much, much, much more important disconnect – the one between that membership and the national electorate. Oldham doesn’t change this. Whilst he might not deter core Labour voters from supporting the party, nationally his YouGov approval rating was at minus 41 as of 30th November taking samples across the population.

So why is this happening? Well… the loyalists’ voice on social media can be a tad shrill (and threatening) at times. Corbyn’s woes are down to right wing media bias; it’s the disloyalty of his parliamentary colleagues… and apparently it’s people like ME posting my personal analysis and opinions on my Facebook page. I love the last one because it implies that I’m not just some git mouthing off in the procrastinations between Holby City rewrites but I can ACTUALLY CHANGE THE WORLD!!!

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Mwah, ha, haaaaaaa!

It’s undoubtedly true that JC has had a hammering from the media, but then so did Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard to name but two from recent political history. It’s certainly true that many centre and right wing papers don’t like Corbyn’s left agenda, but actually the press’s biggest failing/tendency is not its right wing bias, but its pack mentality when it smells a loser. IDS was slaughtered in the press from all sides – because he was useless. With Corbyn, the press can sniff blood in the air, and they won’t stop until he’s torn limb from limb. They do it to celebrities, dodgy politicos of all colours. It’s about their power – and that’s objectionable – the left/right thing, though real, is oddly incidental. My guess is we’ll see more favourable press in the next few days simply because he’s been seen to win something. The press often follows more than it leads.

It’s not nice – but who said politics was nice. It shouldn’t be nice! Putting yourself forward to be Prime Minister is about asking the the country to trust you with the greatest responsibility there is. Life, death, war, peace, health, terorrism, the economy. You’ll be in the bear pit of world politics with Merkel, Putin, the next president of the United States, the morass of volatile middle eastern politics, not to mention domestic issues.

Back in July, as the Leadership race started to gather pace, Corbyn had a minor run-in with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 news who questioned him about his relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah. Corbyn lost his temper and snapped at KGM accusing him of tabloid journalism.  There followed my first social media spat about the soon-to-be leader. It seemed blindingly obvious to me that if he was losing his temper with cuddly Krishnan on the UK’s most left leaning TV news outlet he perhaps wasn’t suited to the job of opposition leader.

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Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy exerting his right wing media brain-washing in order to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming UK Prime Minister

He’s still struggling with the whole interview thing today, as evidenced by his confused response on shoot-to-kill and ‘Jihadi John/Mohammed Emwazi’ with Laura Kuensberg. If one tries to raise this, one is slapped down by the loyalists: ‘There are far more important things than handling political interviews with the BBC!’

Quite right. There are. That’s the point. If you can’t handle a page-one interview from the press, then, seriously, how on earth do you expect the voters to trust you when things get really serious.

The fact – the historical fact – is that great leaders take the deft handling of the press as a given. It might be challenging, and require deft manoeuvring and work and intelligence, and oh yes, finely tuned social skills – but none of them pretend that somehow it doesn’t matter, or allow themselves to be (easily) derailed by it. Look at Obama, Clinton, and even the Satan that should not be named… Tony Blair. Or, dare I say it, Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was parodied, mocked, vilified, turned into a mass media public hate figure, and yet, oddly remained popular and powerful for the best part of ten years.

Good or bad press in itself is not the deciding factor of anything. It was widely reported by the left, centre and right wing press that David Cameron (allegedly) put his knob in the mouth of a dead pig. I have no idea as to the truth of this accusation, but you may have noticed that Cameron barely bothered to deny it. Why? Not because it’s true, but because he knows that it doesn’t do him any harm at all. He’s still far more popular than Corbyn (back to that YouGov poll), trusted with the nation’s security and economy. He did a completely dumb ass thing when he was a student – and people like him for it! It makes him human. Anyone who’s ever worked in an A&E department knows for a fact that men do all sorts of strange things with their penises, and knowing that the PM is down there with the best/worst of us is ultimately reassuring – and it makes (most of) us feel ever slightly superior because we wouldn’t be quite that stupid. Turn the incident on its head. Would Jeremy Corbyn ever stick his knob in a pig? God no! And it makes people wary of him. He’s not human. The Corbyn knob’s too good for a pig. He’s Robespierre to Cameron’s Danton (I’m talking in terms of knobs and pigs, not politics, as I hope you appreciate. Sorry Danton).

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‘I’m doing you a favour, Dave. Oink!’

That’s what being Prime Minister of a large western democracy entails. You can’t cry foul and write off your problems to a few bad headlines – or even a lot of bad headlines.

Well. I know from experience that there are some who aren’t convinced by that line of reasoning. So let’s strip away the media and look at Corbyn uncut, Corbyn unplugged, Corbyn in the raw.

There are the interviews which I’ve already cited – neither KGM nor Kuensberg asked anything particularly difficult, but the fudged response on shoot-to-kill was undeniably all Jeremy’s own work. And that’s before we get to his declaration in a Today Programme interview that he would under no circumstance be prepared to push the nuclear button.

The rights and wrongs of nuclear deterrence isn’t the issue here. It’s about the man understanding his role as leader of the opposition, a political party, a team. As Len McCluskey says, he has to stop saying the first thing that comes into his head. Yes, we know he’s a unilateralist, but his party doesn’t endorse unilateralism at the moment, nor do his shadow defence or foreign affairs spokespersons. All he had to say was that the policy was under review. When people talk about the disloyalty in the PLP, they forget that loyalty runs both ways. Not only has Corbyn rebelled against his party five hundred and thirty three times in the past, but making off-the-cuff statements about party policy without consulting the key members of his shadow team is disloyal in the extreme. As is allowing Maria Eagle to discover that Ken Livingstone is to co-chair the Labour Defence Review over social media.

It’s most definitely true, that when people are asked about the man almost everyone praises him for his authenticity, and the fact that he always says what he believes. Tory Toff-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg was saying so only the other night on Have I Got News For You…

But let’s look at these attributes. Precisely what sort of ‘authentic’ are we talking about? He’s clearly an authentic Islington socialist.

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Authentic Islington Socialist

No offence to anyone reading this from Islington, but as I’ve already suggested, it’s impossible to say if this had an effect either way in Oldham, although anecdotally, I’ve heard from some who campaigned there that it wasn’t something they majored on.

And ‘saying what you believe’… on the surface this is a fantastic thing, but party politics is a team sport. It’s underpinned by the principle of collective responsibility, which means that, no, in the name of unity, message coherence, credibility, basic party cohesion and loyalty, actually no, you can’t always say what you believe.

This is Politics for Beginners.

But then Jeremy dropped out of college after his first year, so maybe he missed that lecture. Oh, that sounds snide, does it? No. I’m absolutely serious. This stuff is the nuts and bolts of parliamentary politics. I remember my daughter being taught about it when she did her politics A-level. Without it everything starts to fall apart, as we’ve witnessed in recent days. The next few weeks, as the party licks its wounds, we’ll get a sense of whether he’s learning this essential lesson.

Which leads us to a more fundamental question: Is Jeremy arrogantly disloyal to his own team, or still hurriedly thumbing through the instruction manual as I’ve suggested above?  Is the reality that he simply doesn’t understand what parliamentary party democracy involves?

He’s never played by those rules, and now, when he needs them, he’s struggling to read and absorb the small print.

Oh, what’s that I hear?  It’s the ‘new’ politics.

New. Politics.

Savour those two words in all their meaningless juxtaposition.

‘New’ is to ‘Politics’ what ‘Alternative’ is to ‘Medicine’.

Illusory. Meaningless. Empty.

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Homeopathic politics..?

If it were possible to recast the whole nature of political discourse that easily then neither Machiavelli nor Shakespeare – both of whom deal with the eternal truths of power and politics – would still be relevant today. I doubt there are many reading this who think that Jeremy Corbyn will be remembered in a hundred years time as the man who redefined politics and rendered two of the greatest thinkers of all time redundant. The whole idea of the ‘new’ politics is just a teensy bit vainglorious. Especially when it is being presented by a leadership dominated by white, middle aged silverbacks.

So – arrogant or not quite up to it? Perhaps it’s both, but my personal sense – given that I don’t doubt the man’s integrity – is that it’s more of the latter.

Remember JC’s Labour conference speech, flitting artlessly from platitude to platitude? Sure, there wasn’t much a life long Labour voter would disagree with exactly… but it was a speech without form or purpose. Just a rambling list of leftish ‘stuff’. I mean, it wasn’t utterly terrible… but oh my days, a soupçon of oratory would have been nice. But hey… it’s September, he’s only been in post a few days, give the guy a chance…

But then, less than twenty-four hours later, just as he’s getting bit of decent press, Corbo decides to re-write Labour’s nuclear policy on the hoof without consulting anyone – and whatever good ground has been gained is instantly thrown away. Who remembers his speech now? No one made him do that. That was Jezzer uncut, unplugged – ‘Essence de Jez’.

‘Now hang on,’ say the loyalists, ‘he’s really shaken up Prime Minister’s Questions, you surely can’t deny that!’

Hmmm… well, has he? Yes, the idea of listener’s questions is refreshing: ‘Terry from Withington emails to ask why the Tories are all bastards’.

It’s refreshing… until it’s boring, which might be why he seems to have more or less given up on it. The Jezster doesn’t seem to understand the point of PMQs. It’s not about the question. It’s about controlling the answer, and then how you home in on that answer and forensically take it apart.

Corbyn’s most successful PMQs today was where he asked the same question on cuts to tax credit six times. This was very effective. I cheered.

But wind back. What’s he actually done? He’s asked the same question six times. He doesn’t develop the idea. He doesn’t broaden the point. He just repeats himself. There’s no narrative. There’s no intellectual or forensic foundation to an argument. It’s a PMQ one-trick pony.

He’s the same in debate. He presents a reasonably coherent proposition, but when challenged, certainly on TV, I’ve never seen him follow through with an effective secondary argument. There have been accounts of him both in front of the PLP and even in shadow cabinet where he simply presents a written statement – on one occasion, after the first Syria debate, he actually read it to his colleagues from a sheet of paper – and then is unable or unwilling to expand on his ideas any further. Even his supporters in the PLP have been described as having their heads in their hands at his inability to argue his own corner.

And, finally, look at last Wednesday’s crucial debate on Syria air strikes. He can’t impose the whip – even though doing so might well have made Cameron blink and back off from holding a vote at all. He can’t, because Corbyn’s disregard of party loyalty over the years renders such a demand untenable – plus he knows that his front bench are likely to resign en masse. So, he grants a free vote in the name of ‘New Politics’. It’s probably the right call, by the way, but ‘New Politics’ it most definitely is not. It was the only option he had left.

So faced with a free vote, does he inspire wavering Labour MPs with stirring and persuasive rhetoric? No. He stands there, stumbling  through the same-old-same-old in a monotonous drone, unable to look up from his bits of paper, or even be sure what sentence comes next. Everyone appreciates that these are his sincerely held beliefs, but can he explore a narrative with it? No. Is it designed to engage with someone who might be wrestling with their own doubts and lead them to a reasoned resolution?  No. Is it a forensically constructed argument that dissects the counter argument and throws down the gauntlet to those who might challenge him? No.

Is it all a bit dull? Oh god, yes.  A speech which should be rallying his own MPs to vote against bombing is dull. Dull. Dull.

Then Hillary Benn gets up and suddenly the arguments – whether you agree with them or not – are rendered in fiery 4K 3D High Definition oratory. MPs are persuaded. The blood is stirred. They change their mind at the last minute. THIS is what political leadership is about. THESE are the skills Corbyn so desperately lacks.

You can learn them. I’d like to send Corbyn for lessons with the redoubtable Ms Gill Newman who taught both of my daughters to debate to national award winning standards from their South Manchester state comprehensive school. It isn’t just about opinionated posh boys; debating is an art, a learnable skill that Corbyn desperately needs to improve.

So Corbyn fails to persuade anybody – the number of Labour MPs approving action ends up at 66 far greater than anyone anticipated (Tory rebels are fewer than expected) – but instead of facing up to his technical shortcomings, Corbyn’s acolytes are all over social media hurling personal abuse at Benn, and any MP who voted freely as the gesture of New Politics had encouraged them to do.

Ehm…  Hello?  You can’t rebel against a free vote. You can’t betray a free vote. The onus is on the leadership to win hearts and minds. You can’t blame the hearts and minds for not being won. And if you object to Cameron impugning the integrity of those against bombing by accusing them of being terrorist sympathisers, then perhaps take a moment to consider that accusing Hillary Benn of personal opportunism for expressing an idea you dislike is no better. Neither accusation is worthy of respect.

And that’s before we get to the death threats. As Alan Johnson said the other night: ‘If that’s the New Politics then let’s have the Old Politics back thank you very much.’

I think I know the reason for Corbyn’s political ineptitude. As an activist he’s spent most of his political career in the company of fellow activists. He was great on the hustings and rallies for the leadership because he was addressing crowds of people who adored and already agreed with him. He wasn’t required to persuade people wary or resistant to his ideas. He’s never had to do that. He just ignores opposition and does his own thing. But that’s a problem when you become a party leader, because winning elections is ALL about persuading people. It’s about taking people with you who don’t automatically see themselves as your fellow travellers.

Please, somebody, tell me he’s learning this. If he doesn’t, Oldham, will seem like a very hollow victory indeed, where yet again Mr Corbyn mistakes getting the nod from a lot of people who already agree with you winning an argument. It isn’t.

Then we come to his lamentable display in the Defence Review Questions on 23rd November. It was toe curling. Check it out by clicking this link – you have to scroll to 15.43 for Corbyn’s statement and Cameron’s response. If you can stop your toes going into spasm as Jeremy waffles his way platitudinously through a sociology text book check-list of causes of global conflict. Oh yes, and some stuff about domestic policing. Ok. Fine. All of these things are important in their own way, but this is the Defence Review at a time when people actually do give a humungous shit about how this stuff is handled – now! – today! – when the world is immediately threatening  on many varied fronts. This response was entirely inappropriate and vague. Check out Maria Eagle and Tom Watson on either side of him – they both look as if they’re wondering whether Blofeld might drop their seats into a pit of piranhas as a swift means of escape.

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I can save you Tom and Maria!

Cameron gets up and says: ‘The more the Right Honourable gentleman speaks, the less he has to say’. He’s right. Cameron is bloody right. I don’t want him to be right, but he is. And then he answers all of El Corbynara’s questions with ease. There’s nothing on Corbyn’s list he can’t deal with. I actually feel sorry for Jezzer. He’s stumbling through a written speech that he struggles to read fluently, with the opposition laughing and chatting and ignoring him… but behind him it’s worse. Silence. A woman Labour MP is typing on her iPad. His team walking out one by one.

Years ago I gave a not very good best man’s speech at a friend’s wedding.  It was by no means a disaster, but I knew I didn’t have the room with me. I wanted the ground to open up. So unless Corbyn is a sociopath (and I’m not accusing him of that!) then he can’t help but feel the cavernous lack of love from his own benches.

So is the PLP at fault for not at least putting up a show of support for a man with such a resounding mandate from the party membership?

If your PLP are against you then, as leader, it’s your job to win them round – it’s not simply their duty to follow you without question (as Corbyn has himself illustrated five hundred times) – especially when it is suggested that they might be whipped to abstain or even vote against an issue that is current party policy… we’ve still got the Trident vote to come, Oldham victory or no Oldham victory. How he handles this will be a real test of what he’s learning.

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The Push-Me-Pull-You approach to party democracy

Elected Labour MPs have a mandate to represent the millions who voted for them – and indeed a responsibility to all their constituents. The party mandate doesn’t trounce that. Parliamentary democracy is about far, far more than the wishes of paid-up party members.

If the swing voters of Middle England feel safer with Tory austerity, it’s your job to persuade, cajole, love-bomb them into changing their minds.

Years later when I got married myself, I had a lot more fun with my Groom’s speech. I learned from my mistakes and took the room with me. I certainly didn’t blame my first audience for not laughing enough.

If ordinary voters across the country don’t trust you to keep them safe on the streets, or to accept their genuine fears about how they perceive migration to be changing their communities, then it’s your job to engage with that, to take it very seriously, and to persuade them that their fears will be addressed because there are a 106 marginals you have to persuade who aren’t going to be as kind to you as the safe seat of Oldham West was last week.

The end result may not be what they think they want now – yes, most definitely, it must be a part of a strong left agenda – but they will only come with you if you are able to persuade people who don’t agree with you already.

OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE JAMESON! YOU’RE JUST WHINGING ON ABOUT CORBYN WHEN YOU SHOULD BE GETTING YOUR HEAD DOWN AND FIGHTING THE COMMON ENEMY!

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SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU TORY APOLOGIST CARTOON MONKEY!!!

This and many variations on this theme have been said to me many times. Well the monkey bit only once, but I’ve grown rather fond of that one.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

Nor am I intimidated by it. My proposition is that, currently, Corbyn has neither the intellectual ability, the personal skills, nor the political acuity to win a general election.

There is something he can do about this. He can develop his debating skills (I think Ms Newman is retired now so she’s probably got time on her hands). His intellectual and political shortcomings can be addressed by assembling a well chosen team of critically minded advisers to keep him properly briefed and remind him of the strategies essential to succeed in the arena of parliamentary politics. He needs to have people around him who he trusts to tell him when he’s getting it wrong.

I want to feel hopeful about this. But I’m clearly finding it hard.

I’ve heard it said that I, and those who share these specific misgivings should shut up because what Corbyn needs is TIME. He needs to be given the space to bed-in, for the different wings of the party to find an accommodation and learn to work together.

He doesn’t have time.

Politics doesn’t stop to give you time. Not even the ‘new’ politics. Even if it did, Corbyn is so far behind the curve he’d need Doc Brown’s DeLorean to give him any chance of catching up.

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Doc Jez in search of ‘time’ to go back to the future

In order to ‘fight the common enemy’ we have to have a leader who possesses all three of these qualities – preferably in spades. It’s not even a left/right thing. I don’t find Corbyn’s socialist politics-seminar-all-you-can-eat buffet particularly nourishing, but if I truly believed he was a winner, a leader, an effective political force, a smart strategic operator, I would be behind him all the way. Absolutely. One hundred per cent. Maybe even a hundred AND TEN per cent like they do on X-Factor.

Oldham has certainly bought him a tiny bit of breathing space. If things had gone badly, then it would have been hard to avoid a major crisis – a coup or a putsch – before Christmas. It would have triggered an existential crisis for the Labour Party. Just as Corbyn doesn’t have a capable alternative front bench waiting in the wings, neither is there an alternative unifying candidate anywhere near ready to replace him. All sides must use this time well. Jeremy has to show that he is learning how to work in a team. Those who want to find a different way forward for the party must look how to achieve this through persuasion, inclusion and constructive democratic change, and not by destroying the mother ship in the hope that something they like crawls out of the wreckage.

Oldham has to give us time to move forward, not just be a moment of respite that put off the inevitable melt down.

I have no idea how next May will go, but sooner or later there will be a by election in one of those 106 marginals, and then let’s all hope that lessons can be learned, problems faced and addressed, and a parliamentary seat won from the Tories which genuinely does suggest that there is a strong, deep-rooted and broad change in a persuaded electorate which could foreshadow a Labour government in 2020…

…which is an objective shared by Corbyn loyalists and cartoon monkeys alike.

King-louie

I want to be like you-hoo-hoooo in fighting the common enemy!

There really is no place like Home…

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‘If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all’

Grrr. How this aphoristic bleat sets my teeth on edge. As if criticism has to be balanced to be valid.

No it doesn’t.

But, having returned last night from watching The Funfair at Manchester’s new arts super-venue, Home, I am overwhelmed by such extreme feelings of distress about pretty much every aspect of the production, that demanding some kind of positive, constructive response from myself seems essential for my own mental well being.

Ok… so the new theatre space is good. Sitting in the upper circle, it feels satisfyingly intimate. Acoustics are excellent. Sight lines aren’t bad. It’s nice to see a new theatre with a good high proscenium – and a balanced thrust that draws the proscenium playing space into the auditorium. All of these will be used to imaginative effect by designers in future productions. Great work WILL be done in this exciting new theatre.

The music is well executed. The sound is clear and well balanced… But what it has to with anything in the production, I really couldn’t say. Plus they’re dressed as clowns which seems to be confusing the fair with the circus, but, hey, what do I know?

Sad Clown

My theatrical alarm bells always start ringing when enigmatic clowns appear…

The design – set and costumes – is occasionally clever but alienatingly unattractive (whoops, starting to slip…) BUT on a positive note… both elements are well executed. There is a good standard of finish, and it sets the bar high for the presentation of future shows. A lot of people worked their socks off to make this look good.

And the cast….

Oh bollox. Now I’m really struggling. I absolutely don’t want to criticise a gang of actors, who, after all, are only doing what they’re told, but my merry ship of positivity has just run aground, holed below the waterline….

The thing is, who knows what this cast are capable of? I’ve no reason to think they are anything other than highly competent actors in their own right – but the play is so bloody dreary they are scuppered before they even set sail. And it’s the choice of material which is at the core of everything that dismays me about this show.

The Funfair is a new adaptation of a play called Kasimir and Karoline by Ödön Von Horváth, dating from 1929, which the programme and Home’s publicity repeatedly tells us is a twentieth century masterpiece.

No it isn’t.

The programme also tells us that Ödön Von Horváth is a truly great writer, on a par with – if not better than – Bertolt Brecht, and the only reason we haven’t heard of him is because he died when he was 37.

No he isn’t, and no, it isn’t. Although admittedly the age thing might explain why no one has ever heard of Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Christopher Marlowe, Joe Orton….  Director Walter Meierjohann insists in the programme that Horváth is funnier than Brecht, which, judging by the awful tumbleweed moments that greeted every gag last night, is a bit like saying that Myra Hindley was kinder to children than King Herod.

Actually, hands up, I am being unfair. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and as I don’t speak German, and have never encountered the original, I suppose it is just possible that the brilliant humour and general ‘masterpiece-ness’ has somehow got lost in translation. And when I say lost, I’m talking major solar-storm-knocking-out-the-whole-GPS-system-the-day-after-every-ordnance-survey-map-has-been-burned-by-a-mad-map-burning-despot. That kind of lost.

However I normally like Simon Stephens – his adaptation of Curious Incident is superb, so I’m afraid I’m still eyeing the source material with suspicion.

What’s it about?

Ehm…. Well there’s a northern bloke in a string vest called Cash (Geddit???) who’s lost his job as a driver two days before the start of the play. The idea of looking for a new job seems to have eluded him, and instead he has been thrown into an existential crisis. Ok… so I’m not endorsing the Norman Tebbit ‘on your bike’ philosophy, but losing a driving job – when driving jobs, by their very nature, are rarely permanent anyway – hardly seems to be emblematic of mass unemployment. Are we supposed to take it as read that this man will never work again? He seems to have given up on page one. It’s hard to sympathise with such a useless self pitying git. But he is wearing a string vest, which makes him working class, and therefore some kind of hero.

Anyway, string vest northern bloke is at the fair with Caroline. I can’t tell you anything about her except that she wears a translucent frock and we can see her underwear. I have no idea who she actually is, what she does for a living, what class she is, what her dreams and aspirations are… She doesn’t appear to have any character whatsoever, apart from being Cash’s fiancée. However the change in his employment status seems to be jeopardising their relationship.

So clearly not much of a relationship.

Add to this a shouty sweary scouser in leather trousers and a leather pork pie hat. I have no idea who this guy is – apart from being an annoying stereotype. So, shouty scouser (who says ‘fuck’ – or ‘fochhhhh’ – a lot) has some kind of relationship with a miserable tall girl in silver hot pants. But he throws beer in her face randomly so that doesn’t seem to be going too well either.

Then there’s a nerdy Welsh bloke who looks a bit like Steven Merchant who gets involved with Caroline for a bit and eats ice creams. I say Welsh… for one whole scene he adopted a strong Liverpool accent. I have absolutely no idea whether this was deliberate or not.

Enter two more stereotypes – a middle aged comb-over northern capitalist, complete with cigar (straight out of a George Grosz cartoon), and a posh southern type. They eat fried chicken and letch over the women.

Once these characters, such as they are, are established, there is much shouting, and gurning, and chasing around; some stuff about a Zeppelin; some tin cans – a LOT of tin cans – fall from the flies; there’s a freak show introduced by a Baron Samedi figure where a blue gorilla woman with a giant Where-The-Wild-Things-Are head sings a song; theres a LOT of extremely bad ‘drunk’ acting: there’s some plot about Caroline going to Blackpool in the Bentley belonging to the Northern Capitalist; and then there’s some kind of fight where people get injured and sing Buddy Holly; and finally string-vest gets off with silver-hot-pants.

And did I mention the MC/ringmaster (Again with the circus/fair confusion???) who is a short actor and who occasionally narrates (and is actually the best thing in it)? Oh yes, and there are those musicians in their clown make-up…

Sad Clown

The clown guitarist kept wandering round the stage being sinister

…who play from a glass box and occasionally wander on stage for no particular reason.

And while I’m at it… The Funfair? Why are they at a funfair? What kind of fair is it supposed to be? It’s nothing I recognise – apart from being a really shit funfair no one would ever go to. Oh? What’s that you say?
It’s symbolic.
Symbolic of what? When you’ve got a moment…. In your own time….
Capitalism..?
Listen sunshine, for a symbol – a metaphor – an allegory – to work, it has to convince in its own right. We have to believe in the funfair as a real place in order for its symbolic meaning to have any traction. Otherwise it’s just a ham fisted device.

And where is this bloody awful funfair anyway? Germany with its Zeppelins and George Grosz caricatures, or Platt Fields in Manchester (as Stephens suggests in the programme) where the most aspirational thing the female lead can dream of is a trip to Blackpool in a Bentley?

We don’t aspire to much in t’north.

Finally…. It’s written in 1929, but it’s sort of set now with plastic beer cups, and a rock band playing Iggy Pop numbers (Did I mention the clown make-up? Oh God, did no one say lose the clown make-up?).

Sad Clown

Do you sense I have a problem with clowns?

Oh? What’s that you say? It’s timeless? It’s purposefully non specific and non realistic in its setting so as to draw together the financial and political instability of the 1920s with the social climate in the UK in 2015?

I beg to differ. I put it to you that its locational abstraction renders it incoherent, without relevance to anything in our time, and probably stripping it of its original relevance to 1920s Germany into the bargain.

The programme tells us that the recent UK election was decided by nationalism, which is a parallel to Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Ehm….. So are we supposed to compare the SNP with the Nazi party? Or are we selectively talking about UKIP and just bandying terms around randomly in the vague hope that something will make sense eventually. And are we really comparing the moderate successes of UKIP to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s? There are vague topological similarities, but to go further than that is to be simplistic and ahistorical in the extreme.

Stephens pronounces that the play demonstrates ‘a compassion for the poor and [is] a celebration of their capacity for poetry and wonder’. Not that he’s being patronising or anything. Nor did I spot much ‘poetry and wonder’ amid the gaggle of shouting stereotypes that populated the stage last night. But no, he insists that it’s ‘a working class play that examines the lives of ordinary people’; it’s ‘Manchester’s great undiscovered play’.  No it isn’t.  It may be a lot of things, but, objectively, neither of those descriptions are applicable.  Everything about this show is middle class – Ödön Von Horváth was the son of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat; Stephens is from Stockport originally but hasn’t lived here for a very long time; the production is artsy, knowing and oblique in its staging. I should add that as a fully paid up member of the middle classes myself I have no issue with my own roots, but I really object to people making bogus class claims to give their work added “credibility”.

I could bang on and on and on about this, but I’ll stop now and try to draw some meaning out of the whole uncomfortable mess.

The key issue is that the play itself is really very poor. And this frustrates me because this is the inaugural production of what ought to be an amazing new Manchester venue that speaks to the whole of the city….

It’s called Home remember!!

But what does it offer us? A German play from the 1920s, which may or may not be a masterpiece, crudely anglicised by transposing the characters to shouty northern stereotypes and presenting it as a piece of incoherent quasi expressionist pretentious misrerabilism.

Somewhere at the very heart of this artistic enterprise – which should be beating in time to the heart of the community who are paying for it – something has gone very wrong indeed.

I remember Ken Campbell once describing BBC Director General John Birt as: ‘…an alien, inadequately briefed’.

That’s how I feel about director Walter Meierjohann. His appointment is a piece of bold internationalism. I love Europe. I love European art, music, theatre, cinema. I will be voting to stay in the EU at the referendum. But the cultural Babelfish in Meierjohann’s ear is seriously taking the piss.

But hey, don’t listen to me, it’s garnered some wonderful reviews – five stars from The Times, four from the Observer…. And I can understand that national reviewers would want to look favourably at the opening production of a new venue, when we stand on the edge of what are likely to be horrifically lean times for publicly funded live performance. In that respect, I absolutely understand those who will no doubt balk at what appears to be the vociferous negativity of this blog. But art never got anywhere by developing a laager mentality, or pulling up the drawbridge on the fundamentals of its own standards.

I want Home to be better than this. I want coherence, content, excitement – and more than anything, I want it to be a palace of dramatic stories that actually illuminate the community where I live. You can’t just throw material at us and hope that a few northern accents, some tenuous historical cross-referencing, and a bit of tricksy video projection will make it “relevant”.

It won’t. No amount of clown make-up, or maniacally laughing grotesques, or posing super-numeries can paper over the worryingly hollow artifice of this production. The Emperor not only has no clothes, on this showing he is staggering around, punch drunk, in a pair of somewhat threadbare Y-fronts.

So – in the spirit of saying something constructive or shutting up – how to find him some nicer threads to put on…? I’m not a Mancunian, I’m an outsider of sorts, but I’ve spent more than half my life here, so maybe I have something positive to share with Mr Meierjohann.

What I love about this city is that, yes, it has its problems, but the reason it is spearheading initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and is always changing and growing and leading the way is because it doesn’t waste much time sitting around feeling sorry for itself, or wallowing in simplistic political/class narratives. Manchester is steeped in extraordinary history – much of which has resonated around the planet. It’s not a city of victims. The meanings to be drawn from this history and the way its communities are constantly evolving, are complex and nuanced.

There’s a dry humour – driven by plain speaking, and a contempt for anything that smacks of pretension. It’s a humour that expects the worst – but is underpinned by pride, passion, ambition, self assurance and hope.

My plea to you Walter… take the dodgy Babelfish out of your ear…. and listen. You obviously know how to polish up a nifty bit of stage craft. Listen to the heart of the place you’re calling Home. Listen to it beating. And put that on your fantastic new stage.

If you don’t, you’ll drive us away, and it won’t be ‘Home’ to anyone. Please make it somewhere a lot of people are going to want to be, because if this is a taster of what’s to come, I’m genuinely worried that it won’t be.

Oh yes…. And lose the clown make-up. Please lose the clown make-up.

Sad Clown

If A Racist Shouts In An Empty Forest…

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It being a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend – when Manchester makes its annual grab at looking fresh, clean and full of expectation for the summer ahead – seeking chilled out stimulation Gail and I took a long overdue trip to the recently refurbished and extended Whitworth Art Gallery.

The new Restaurant extension at The Whitworth – expect to see this featured in many a Manchester based TV drama

Firstly, I should say that walking anywhere in the vicinity of Whitworth Park in springtime does something to my head as it reminds me of a blossomy day in May 1981 when I, and a group of university chums consumed an ample quantity of magic mushrooms and wandered around giggling and touching things randomly. How appropriate that the same park is now dotted with abstract sculpture although in these days of stern realities, there is no space for hallucinated re-imaginings of anything.  Only a drug addled idiot could possibly mistake this sculpture in the shape of a climbing frame for an actual climbing frame.  Duh!

I’m so glad I took all my drugs before the age of Health & Safety

Inside the gallery, the architects and curators have done a fine job. The new spaces are inviting, beautifully lit… and full of interesting artsy STUFF. I could easily write a critique of the art and installations therein – seriously, if you’re in Manchester, make some time for a visit, it’s an excellent series of displays – some are better than others…

…but the thing that really caught my eye was this official ‘warning’ posted at either end of one of the new exhibition spaces:

My pulse quickens. My expectations are high. I am about to be SHOCKED.

So what is this piece of art so offensive that the gallery offers the services of its staff to guide you through it unoffended?

I’ve been known to rail loudly against gallery zombies who wander round with their iPhones taking pictures of pictures they are absolutely never ever going to look at again (the ultimate double fail – they didn’t look at the paintings then, and they’re not going to look at them later either), so I hope you’ll forgive my hypocrisy on this occasion, just to illustrate this blog.

Wandering around Low Tide Wandering

Schütte’s installation – entitled Low Tide Wandering (admittedly the sort of title that makes me sigh) comprises a sequence of prints/sketches/etchings, pegged to ‘washing lines’ across a gallery thoroughfare, through which the viewer has to weave.  The images are eclectic – portaits of friends, doodles (there’s one of a plate of Strudel), cartoons, satirical observations. My initial response is that it’s pretty good. Certainly it’s the kind of thing I enjoy, although Grayson Perry has a lot to answer for – 80% of new art I see these days is stuff with writing on. Enough with the scribbling guys!! But taken on its own it’s funny, smart, astute. A sort of artist-thinker’s mind map hung out to dry labyrinth stylie. It’s fun.

Gail has wandered off to explore it on her own. ‘It’s over here!!’ She calls to me merrily. I go over, and hanging in no particular pride of place, not far from the strudel, is a minimalist doodle of a black American jazz trumpeter, and the single algebraic supremo of racial slurs. The n word.

Now, obviously, the interpretation of any artistic piece – pretty much anything at all actually – is by its very nature subjective, but I would confidently venture that Schütte isn’t endorsing racial labelling. He’s clearly (well, clearly to me, anyway) juxtaposing the iconic imagery twentieth century music making with a racist label, and asking the viewer to explore their response to the disparity between the two.

Nearby, not far from the Strudel, there’s a cartoon of the Twin Towers, adorned by the caption: ‘Holy Shit’. Do I need to explain that here? Of course I don’t. I’m sure you get the drift. This is an artist who deals in multiple meanings. It’s hardly the stuff of a PhD on semiotics and irony.

Hmm.

I go over to the young, keen and highly articulate gallery attendant. I ask her whether anyone has requested, as the gallery plaques offer, to be guided through the installation avoiding the depiction of the racist word. ‘No,’ she says, ‘but I have had people come up to me asking for me to point it out so they can look at it.’

Whoa. Say that again. I mean, let me get this absolutely clear: The gallery are warning people that the installation contains images and words that may be considered offensive, and offering to assist people so that they don’t see this stuff, but actually what people are doing is asking the staff to point them out to them, so they don’t have to hunt for them or stumble across them as the ‘wandering’ part of the title – (see picture above) – clearly intends. And all of this after the gallery has explained the meaning of the work – the artist’s intention – in case they take one of the prints literally as a racist attack on a black jazz musician.

‘Uh huh.’

And no one has asked to be shown an inoffensive route through the exhibition?

‘Not from me, no.’  She explains that sometimes people come up to her, unsure which of the prints is supposed to offend them the most, and they just want to check with her to be sure.

Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Irony overload.

The Gallery attendant doesn’t see it as being in anyway ironic. She’s quite a serious soul. She then tells me that one of the people who asked to be guided to the ‘n’ word picture was an African American woman who had heard that there was a racist art work on display at the gallery.  She had come especially to check up on the piece, and demanded to be directed straight to the offending item, to judge for herself whether it was indeed offending.

‘What did she decide?’ I ask.

The attendant tells me that after lengthy consideration the woman had come to the conclusion that it was racist and offensive, because although the word was in the context of an artistic juxtaposition of ideas, and she understood that, and she understood Schütte’s intention, Schütte is a white German artist and therefore the word is not his to use.

Oh my pirouetting aunt.

Hang on a minute. So even if the viewer understands that the intention isn’t racist, and appreciates that the artist isn’t racist, the mere existence of the word on that piece of paper, put there by the wrong person renders it racist.

Was that a noisy tree I just heard falling in that empty forest…?

Well… in the eye of the beholder and all that, and I know that just as I find this whole thing beyond satire, equally one can’t tell someone not to be offended, you can’t tell them that something they find to be personally racist isn’t racist… but really, really?!?

The level headed Gallery Attendant is admonishing of my bewilderment.  ‘I get it,’ she says. ‘The woman was African American and the word is far more potent for her.’

My brain is short circuiting now, like a confused super computer in an episode of Star Trek. So are we talking about the wrong artist and the right viewer? Or the wrong viewer and the right artist? Or is it the wrong artist and the wrong viewer? Or is it the right artist and the right viewer and her offence is part of the art work as a whole?  I don’t think so (to that last one) because it seems to me that the Whitworth Gallery has completely lost trust in their visitors to simply look at stuff and make their own minds up.  Like you normally do with art. Suddenly we’re ‘warning’ people which creates a prurient attraction to a racist word – and then telling them how they’re supposed to respond. This is surely light years adrift from Schütte’s original intention.

The attendant tells me that the gallery’s first response to complaints about the picture (I don’t know who from, or how many) was to remove the print in question.  Then they had a change of heart – something of a censorship issue there I guess – and put it back and opted for the warning plaques.

Look, I get that it’s an offensive word, and that it’s incredibly potent… but I do squirm at the idea that words are owned by anybody (isn’t that how racism and prejudice kick off and are empowered to start with?). It’s about context. And that may not be a black and white thing. I choose that phrase quite deliberately, and in the spirit of Schütte’s ambiguity. I appreciate that context can be harder to justify when an ‘outsider’ starts to play artistically with someone else’s keyword of oppression. But hang on a minute – racism affects everyone, so everyone needs the space to talk about it – and that means that I should be able to type the word nigger right here if I feel I need to, and be trusted that I’m not endorsing Southern lynchings by doing so.

I feel the same about a word like yid. I hope I have the sense to understand that a non jew using the word may well do so for the best of reasons, and that if I understand it, and I understand the context of it, the mere existence of it on a piece of paper in an art gallery isn’t somehow validating the holocaust.

I’m aware that there are plenty of jews who don’t share my feelings – but I believe that, in itself, to be equally problematic. A sort of territorial clinging to the instruments of our own oppression. It skews everything. But perhaps that’s a subject for a different blog…

Back to The Whitworth’s artistic safety notices! The minute we stop trusting audiences to think for themselves, we kill our art stone dead. Ambiguity and context – and the pursuit of meaning – are at the heart of what makes art, art. But when I see an explanatory warning plaque in an art gallery I fear we’re developing a suffocating fear of ambiguity. Is this the stifling undertow of Charlie Hebdo – a literalist fundamentalism that turns everything to a frightened grey sludge?

It’s feeling like a new thing to me, but then I’m reminded of something that happened to me in 1983. I had just left Cardiff University where I had been studying for a postgraduate diploma in Theatre Studies at The Sherman Theatre, and along with a bunch of mates (not the mushrooming ones) we decided to sell-out every performance of a show for the Edinburgh Festival and actually make a bit of cash, by calling it Live Sex On Stage. Utterly shameless? Most definitely. But as satirical reviews about pornography go, this one was not bad at all. Here’s the poster:

Avert your eyes if easily offended!

Avert your eyes if easily offended!

Just to clarify, that’s the whole poster; a dayglo trompe l’oeil of a peeling tacky sex club poster pasted onto a brick wall emblazoned with the title ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ in crude lettering. Assuming people to be generally intelligent, making the poster a poster OF a poster, we modestly hoped it was clear that our poster WASN’T an ACTUAL Live Sex poster but a poster for a show ABOUT a live sex show.

Not so. In Hull, our show (which contained neither sex nor nudity, above the elbow) was closely scrutinised by two very disappointed members of the local Vice Squad (who had to watch from the lighting box because the performance was sold out, and to stand at the back of the auditorium would have infringed fire regulations).

In Worcester, moral panic set in a lot earlier. We were playing a council run venue and apparently there were complaints about the graphic nature of the poster. I’ve hunted high and low for the clipping so I could reproduce it here, but thirty years on it appears to be mislaid, so I ask you to trust my account of it. The gist of the article in the local rag was as follows: ‘Following complaints about the graphic nature of a poster for fringe theatre show, entitled “Live Sex On Stage!”, due to play at the blah venue next month, council officials have agreed that the word “Sex” be blanked out on all posters advertising the show displayed in council run premises. Councillors agreed that uncensored posters, with the word “Sex” fully visible, would be displayed openly at the Central Library.

To this day I cherish the thought of the good folk of Worcester trooping into the centre of town to look at a three letter word on a poster of a poster on a wall to decide whether they were titillated/outraged (delete where not applicable).

Wait a moment. Am I trivialising The Whitworth’s n-word controversy by comparing a vicious racist noun with a piece of ridiculous parochial prudery?

Well perhaps, but, equally perhaps the Worcester response gets to the nub of it. Terrified by the mere sight of the word ‘sex’, the authorities there decided that it would be permissible for the word to be seen in at least one library where, after all, the same word could probably be found in hundreds of worthy volumes. They trusted that people going to a library accepted that there were all sorts of words, with sticky connotations, which had a right to exist as part of the grand panoply of human experience contained (safely) within the walls of a municipal oasis of learning.

In a swimming pool, or on a bus stop a poster with the words ‘Live Sex On Stage!’ is just that. In a seat of learning, those who venture within are expected to search for deeper meanings.

Shouldn’t the same apply to an Art Gallery?

I would say so, but on the other hand I know those who would insist that that was an elitist view. The n word is racist in any context – stick Schütte’s picture on a bus stop and it’s a hate crime – putting it in a gallery doesn’t exempt it. To which I say, an art gallery is only elitist if you restrict those who might go there to an elite. The Whitworth is free to enter, and located within easy walking distance of the university to one side, and several deprived residential areas to the other.

Let’s not hijack social liberalism to say that it’s somehow wrong to hail our galleries, theatre and indeed central libraries as safe spaces for difficult, distasteful or even dangerous ideas.

And of course, there will always be an element of censorship and/or selection, but having agreed to display the thing, for god’s sake – for art’s sake, for humanity’s sake – please don’t put up signs recommending that people close their eyes.  It’s an art gallery! If there’s anywhere where signs should be crying out for people to walk around with their eyes – and their minds – wide, wide open, it’s here.

***

We headed downstairs, through Sarah Lucas’s wonderful and witty ‘Tits In Space’ installation, to where the gallery had regained its sense of irony…

 

…much to my wife’s disappointment.

Please Do Not Feed The Conspiracy Theorists!!

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It all began well enough, rather deliciously in fact, as most comfortable middle class left-of-centre dinner parties do. There were starters of carpaccio sliced fennel in oil and lemon juice with Maldon sea salt; two types of home made hummus – one with toasted pine nuts, the other with sautéed lamb, plus a side jug of lemon and mint to drizzle over it… and a particularly tasty conspiracy theory to get the ball rolling.

‘I knew someone, who knew this Soho madam…’ says the slightly hunched woman with the eighties perm who struggles with eye contact to my right, ‘…and this madam told me that in the 1970s, she regularly supplied Tory prime minister Edward Heath with Moroccan boys, who would be smuggled into the country for him to have sex with, and then smuggled out again.’ The pitta bread arrives. ‘That’s what Morning Cloud was for.’

Edward Heath at the helm of his sex hideaway

1970s UK Prime Minister, Edward Heath at the helm of his sex hideaway

‘Ah well,’ I’m feeling a little mischievous, ‘Moroccan boys were terribly fashionable back then, you know, Joe Orton and all that.’

‘Oh no,’ she sternly corrects me, ‘these were boys. Six or seven year old boys. With the full knowledge of Special Branch.’

A bowl of home made baba ganoush arrives, sprinkled with luscious pomegranate seeds.

Yummy conspiracy food

Yummy conspiracy food

I can’t help thinking that’s an awful lot of trouble to go to for a bit of child sexual abuse (not the home made Levantine hors d’oeuvres, the child smuggling. Doh! Keep up!), when most child abusers settle for easy access opportunistic satisfaction.

And I should have left it that – as a thought – but hey, when did that ever stop me?

You see, my problem is this: Clearly all sorts of truly awful, horrific, stuff went on – goes on! – but like most things in life, people are kinda lazy, obvious, banal. Jimmy Savile wore elasticated tracksuits so he could whip it out, and put it back at a moment’s notice.

Jimmy Savile favoured the banal convenience of the tracksuit

Jimmy Savile favoured the banal convenience of the elasticated tracksuit

(Sorry am I putting you off your tzatziki?)

Creamy levantine hors d'ouevre

Creamy levantine hors d’ouevre

The hard work generally goes into the set-up. You know the kind of thing, raising millions for charity, becoming a trusted priest, training to be a gifted music teacher… That gives you the access, and the status you need; after that it’s about maximising opportunity. The least work for the most gain.

A lot of professions are like that. It takes years to become a doctor; but hours and hours on the golf course await you once you’ve got there.

So I can follow the establishment paedophile ring narrative as far as Alderman Cyril Smith exploiting his role to gain access to children’s homes and variations on that theme. And I guess he had the inside on other high ranking types with similar proclivities, enough to blackmail them on an ad hoc basis to get himself unarrested every time he got more brazen and careless than normal.

For those unfamiliar with UK current affairs, this is the delightful Alderman Cyril Smith, Liberal politician and serial child abuser.

For those unfamiliar with UK current affairs, this is the delightful Alderman Cyril Smith, Liberal politician and serial child abuser.

But a shady cabal of senior politicos, security chiefs, with nothing better to spend their time on but the systematic and collective abuse of children, in organised child abuse events, sex parties or what have you…? Hmm… I start to struggle a bit. Not because I have a blind faith in our political class, nor because I can’t imagine terrible, terrible things being done to children by powerful people. But because…

There’s a reason I don’t hold parties. They’re such a bloody time consuming faff. And yes, I confess, the vast majority of parties I’ve organised in my life have involved children… and jelly… and party bags… and politically correct pass-the-parcel where everybody has to win something. Bloody exhausting. These days however, the sorts of parties I hold don’t require anything more risqué than a Tesco Mediterranean Dip Medley (I can’t be arsed slaving over home made hummus) and bread sticks; the crudest thing you’ll find at my place is a crudité. But god, the invitations, the shopping, the planning, the mess…! The ones with the kids are the worst!!!

I know, I know, I’m being flippant in fabulously bad taste – but I’m making a completely serious point too. Some of the events described in recent news reports sound extraordinarily, exhaustingly labour intensive – on a par with mounting a theatre event, or a day’s independent film production. You’d need an administrator, or a damned fine 2nd AD.  So let’s think about this in practical production terms.  

Currently under investigation as the alleged location of historical sex abuse by a cabal of MPs, security and military chiefs.

Currently under investigation as the alleged location of historical sex abuse by a cabal of MPs, security and military chiefs.

Procuring all these children in a collective setting requires personnel – lots of personnel. You need drivers, catering – for the parties – cleaning staff (presumably at Dolphin Square there would have been more than a little mess), and in the case of the smuggled Moroccan children, how are they being transported? Private planes? In which case that involves air traffic control, airfield staff etc. If they’re coming in on commercial jets then you need a whole infrastructure of people on the inside to escort them.  You’ve got to pay/bribe these ancillary workers. That involves negotiating each fee individually (I doubt there’s an industry rate) and providing an income stream, which will require some kind of crude accounting system. All organised crime tends to involve bookkeepers or quartermasters of some sort.  

By the way, if you think I’m beyond the pale with this line of reasoning, then let me tell you this delightful anecdote. Early in my career I worked at a well known english repertory theatre where the directors’ PA told me that she had regularly cleaned a variety of bodily fluids off the walls of the office after the directorial predecessor’s late night ‘casting’ sessions. I use the word ‘variety’ advisedly.

Too gross? Well….perhaps, but that’s my point. Working in a collective environment it was impossible not to involve the staff, and the more people who are involved with something, the less likely you’ll keep it a secret. Presumably that’s why the police investigation has made a public appeal for precisely these kinds of witnesses. It’ll be interesting to see what that throws up. A systematic, large scale, industrial conspiracy requires a large scale, industrial infra structure. The police are clearly looking for that infra-structure too. They also say they are challenged by a mismatch of victim numbers to corroborate the industrial abuse scenario. Again, hopefully the various promises of indemnities will ensure a greater throughput of witnesses to confirm things either way.

So back at the dinner table, a gargantuan Le Creuset has arrived filled with steaming aromatic chicken and artichoke tagine, along with a bowl of al dente oven baked couscous. Something of a Moroccan theme developing here….

With further bad taste, I’ve playfully – but seriously – expounded my infra-structure theory (look, I didn’t start it!) only to be countered by a stern, impregnable look of loathing from the woman opposite, for whom eye contact is a weapon. Surely I must understand that the very invisibility of this infrastructure, the sheer scale of secrecy is evidence in itself of the The Establishment at its conspiratorial best/worst!

Ah yes. The Establishment. That smoking neon sign hanging over the shadowy doorway in every conspiracy theorist’s paranoid imagination.

The Establishment...

The Establishment…

I’m never quite sure precisely what or who the establishment is – or even what The Establishment is! – but I know one thing about it for sure.

It’s a bit crap.

Those who hold power in our country – in the world in fact – appear to me more as somewhat nightmarish comedy fire fighters, clowns in the rattling fire engine of state, who botch their way from crisis to crisis – often self generated – trusting to luck with the economy, barely able to run the most basic of national infra-structures, squirting napalm in each others faces while the doors fall off and the poorest are squashed beneath the rubber wheels of government, their screams lost beneath all the hysterical honking of political horns. A glimpse at transport policy, health policy, defence policy, any policy you care to name, will surely reassure you that the only thing established in the establishment is… chaos.

...or the establishment?

…or the establishment?

Indeed, the same CTs (conspiracy theorists) who talk darkly of decades of highly polished, stiletto bladed conspiracy, will in the next breath bemoan the utter failure of policy or coherence emanating from the very same shadowy enemies who are somehow brilliantly machiavellian – and ostentatiously incompetent – at the same time.

Although, to be fair, I’ve heard it seriously argued that government is DELIBERATELY run in a chaotic fashion so as to distract us from the more sinister calculating agendas lurking under the surface. Oh yes, and apparently wars and terrorism are both fabricated for the same reason. Adam Curtis makes a tidy living producing sooth sayer TV documentaries about it. Well. You can’t prove a negative.

There’s a satirical part of me that wishes that the shadowy cabal theory of everything were true – because perhaps one day all the brilliant secret government conspirators will apply their talents to running the National Health Service, after which time no one will ever be ill again!

So back to Ted Heath’s yacht, and his smuggled Moroccan six year olds. I’m trying to satirise my way out of this in the face of my conspiratorial inquisitor, who is now looking at me as if I have a small Moroccan child stuffed down my trousers.

I joke: ‘It’s like that scene in Austin Powers about Dr Evil’s Henchmen. Mike Myers wonders – just like I always did as a kid – who are these henchmen? Where do they live? Do they have families? Should we care if they get killed? It’s a funny sketch because we know that the idea of building a secret base inside a hollowed out volcano is completely ridiculous. I mean, you couldn’t keep a great big thing like that secret, and that’s why there are no secret bases inside hollowed out volcanoes.’

Glary woman looks at me coldly: ‘How do you know there aren’t?’

This place definitely exists

This place definitely exists

I am forced to admit that of course I don’t. You can’t prove a negative – the WMD of choice for the conspiracy theorist.

‘And,’ she’s tasted blood, now, ‘It’s the collective thing that binds them in their secrecy; the fear of what will happen if they break ranks. I mean, what about Leon Brittan?’
What about him?
‘It’s a bit stange, isn’t it, him dying?’
He was seventy five and he’d had cancer for two years.
‘Just as the truth is coming to the surface??? It’s a bit convenient.’
Whatever Mr Brittan may or not have done, I am actually lost for words at this point.
‘Perhaps he killed himself,’ someone else pipes up, helpfully, as if that were a more plausible scenario.

I’m actually old enough to remember when left wing conspiracy theorists would earnestly argue that the rumours about Leon Brittan (which have been around for decades) were actually spread by MI6 for reasons that have long since eluded me and that despite looking a bit greasy, he was completely innocent of anything apart from being a Tory.

Conspiracy theories are like a game of consequences, random nuggets of paranoia that can be assembled in any order for your amusement.

At this point, I should make something clear. I have no problem with accepting the reality of conspiracies – they’re banal, messy, dirty and fundamentally obvious things – it’s conspiracy theories I feel the intense need to ridicule. For they are just that – theories. Conspiracy theories are, generally, a manifestation of collective paranoid psychoses; constructed dystopian narratives that stand apart from reality. Mostly they are pretty harmless – perhaps they are a social mutation of an ancient collective fear reflex – but the reason they annoy me so much, is that at their heart they are arrogant and egotistical – saying more about the theorists than the theorised – and they belittle everyone involved – the real victims, and the perpetrators too.

Hang on, what am I talking about there? Belittling perpetrators?? What on earth are you on about Jameson? Pass the harissa, this tagine needs a bit more spice.

Ok, so I have a relative who lives in the United States, to whom I can barely talk these days because it’s so hard to manoeuvre around what is, in effect, a psychotic reinvention of world realities. To be fair, there appears to be a substantial tranche of the US left for whom, I guess, their political isolation has led them to share a collective disbelief/distrust of everything, apart from their own ever more extraordinary scenarios. This disbelief appears to be mirrored in the American far-right as well. Perhaps there’s a sense of safety in sharing these mystical beliefs. But that’s odd, because the US hardly hides its propensity for political manipulation or the tendency for its foreign policy to wreak global havoc. I’m always amazed why the CTs feel the need to invent another layer of it.

Before I learned to laugh at this nonsense, I once found myself in a ridiculous discussion on the New York subway where my rellie tried to convince me that the reason the National Union of Mineworkers lost the 1984/5 miners’ strike is because Arthur Scargill was placed there by MI5/CIA in order to discredit the British labour movement and deliberately lose this important industrial dispute. It got so heated we ended up out in one of the boroughs, when we were only going to the Carnegie Deli to eat huge pastrami on rye sandwiches.

Now, as it happens, it has since been confirmed that there was indeed an MI5 informant at the heart of the NUM (it was suspected at the time) passing strategical info on to Special Branch. But Arthur Scargill a CIA agent? I know these pages are read by good people from all around the globe, who may be unfamiliar with the man, but trust me on this, Arthur Scargill the CIA infiltrator is a brilliantly amusing idea…. conjuring up a sort of Yorkshire Jack Bauer with extremely bad hair.

CIA Super Agent Arthur Scargill

CIA Super Agent Arthur Scargill

But. It’s also insulting. It actually says that miners are idiots; blind, naive fools suckered by an evil cabal of political agents provocateur. And perhaps it’s poor old Arthur’s final humiliation to be written off by the american left as a CIA stooge. And then think of the organisation… Did Thatcher know? The Iron Lady and Special Agent Scargill ‘pretending’ to be at war with each other whilst secretly sniggering at the the rest of us poor fools behind their backs?

More recently my relative has announced on Facebook that Anders Breivik was a false flag operation instigated by Mossad in order to punish Norway for its support of the Palestinians. This one did make me angry. There’s something about hijacking that awful bloody tragedy just to serve your own self-loathing-US-centric agenda that absolutely trashes the memory of all those young people. It is, in itself, a form of obscene political colonialism.

And of course she believes that 9/11 was a Mossad put-up job. I’m not going to rehearse those arguments here, but when, today, she also adamantly advertises that ISIS is a CIA/MI6/Mossad false flag organisation, I actually start to feel sorry for the terrorists. I imagine them in their camps, reading this stuff online and screaming at their screens: ‘Oi! Conspiracy theorist!! No!!! We’re trying to fight a holy war here you arrogant egocentric bastard!! We’re genuinely oppressed and extremely pissed off and we’re prepared to kill for it!! We don’t need Mossad’s help thank you very much.’

I love the Mossad thing – CTs who believe Mossad is behind EVERYTHING. They’ll happily list all the terrible things that Israel, the USA and the UK have done to the Middle East, but then they decide that the shat-upon-people of that region somehow don’t actually have the organisational ability to mount their own Jihad. Oh yes, by the way, did you know that Charlie Hebdo was a false flag operation by Mossad to frighten french Jews and get them to move to Israel? Yeah, well you do now.

Like I say. It insults everyone. Good guys, bad guys (you can allocate the labels as your politics determines, I’m easy).

Back to the dinner party and a mouthwatering desert of caramelised apple tart arrives.  I’m informed that I’m obviously not as left wing as my conspiracy chums – as if belief in unsubstantiated conspiracy is directly proportional to radical political thought. Which is both wrong, and philosophically paralysing, in the most arrogant of ways.

We’re on to coffee now, a sweet and delicious vietnamese blend, which takes us away from conspiracies, thank god, and Glary Woman is talking about her passion for Doctor Who.

Must be all those parallel universes.

But I suppose that’s why I find fantasy fiction so tedious. The real world does it for me. Vulnerable kids were, and are, abused all over the place, in the most ordinary of ways, and mostly in private dark, lonely locations. Powerful men will have paid for sex with under aged boys – as they have done for centuries. They ducked and dived. They pulled in favours. They used their status and their contacts, and people’s fear of putting their heads above the parapet, losing their jobs etc to get away with it…

…but if we discover that it was all a lot more random and seedy than the more lurid scenarios suggest, I hope we won’t feel “disappointed” that it was all so run of the mill.  Let’s make sure we don’t fall prey to needing the victims to be six year old Moroccan kids smuggled in by a vast establishment cabal. Let’s make sure we don’t find ourselves needing all the victims to be prepubescent children, as if the exploitation of a fifteen year old rent boy isn’t bad enough.

Let’s not make this about the dark recesses of our imagination and our hatred for authority, and forget to be shocked by the way exploitation and terrible pain is too often so bloody ordinary.

But, as I have said several times now (this Moroccan cuisine does rather repeat on you), I can’t prove a negative, and although I’m as rationally as sure as I can be that the most likely place we’ll find the now-middle-aged collective of Heath’s Moroccan 1970s sex victims is inside a hollowed out volcano – that is no reassurance at all.

For me, it is the conspiracy theories that are the distraction.

And that’s why I, for one, ‘Do Not Feed The Conspiracy Theorists’.

empty plate

No, really, je suis un proper Charlie

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The instant I heard about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week and saw the hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ – I had no hesitation in posting the slogan as my Facebook cover photo. It was an angry and emotional reaction.  I’m a writer – I deal in ideas, words, satire – the attack felt personal.

A week later, and the papers and the internet are full of counter headlines:
‘I am not Charlie!’; ‘Ok, well I might be a bit Charlie, but only on these strict conditions…’ ; ‘Some of my best friends are Charlie’; ‘Charlie isn’t my darling’; ‘You’re a racist, repugnant, free-speech fundamentalist, hypocritical ignoramus if you jump on the Charabanc de Charlie…!!’; ‘You’re the kind of Charlie who doesn’t care about massacres in Nigeria or what the west has done to the middle east, you bastard (did I mention that you were a racist?)!!!’; ‘Ehm…. has anyone got any Charlie?’ (Sorry, that last one was a flashback to a conversation I heard in the Groucho Club about fifteen years ago).

It’s a shoal of shifting opinion, caught in a sudden flash of light; a million panicky, quivering fish, all changing direction together.

Well, I’ve read lots of this stuff (and let’s be honest, it’s getting pretty tedious), and now, for your pleasure, The Ninja Marmoset is going to ride headlong into Charliegeddon.

The thing is, last week I was unthinking, emotional, angry, affronted Charlie. But now, the more the shoal tugs at the current of opinion, fogging the water with opinionated silt…

…the more I feel clearly confident that yes, I am, in the most considered of ways, l’homme qui s’appelle Charlie, a proper Charlie (as opposed to ‘un Charlie propre’ which would be something else altogether).

I’m wittering, but that’s because this whole debate is wittering…. it’s turning into a sequence of rants and semantic squabbles, and competitions as to who can worry the most about the offence caused (mainly) to other people; and what is offence; and over-the-garden-fence like a gaggle of neighbours at war. It’s apparently complex and nuanced…. I mean WHERE DO WE DRAW THE LINE???!?!?!?!

But I’m starting to wonder if it is complex and nuanced at all.  Isn’t it really quite simple? What’s the big deal?

Haven’t we got it covered anyway?

Ok.  Take offence…
What?  You want me to take offence?  You haven’t said anything offensive yet.
No, no, no, I mean ‘take “offence”, for example…’
Oh right.  Does that mean you’re not going to offend me, but you’re going to lecture me on the nature of offence instead?
Yes.
Do you have to?  I think I’d rather you were rude to me.
Shut up and listen!The thing is, we’ve already got laws about this stuff.  Essentially it goes something like this: sexuality isn’t a choice; race isn’t a choice; gender isn’t a choice; disability isn’t a choice; age isn’t a choice. So we have laws that protect people against discrimination, hatred, violence on the basis of what they actually are. Excellent. It’s taken a while to get here, but I’d say we’re doing pretty well so far…

Religion, however, is an idea. It is a choice. When you choose that faith then you choose everything that comes with it. The religion itself has no inherent rights of its own – Gods in a secular society are in the mind of man, or if, perchance, they turn out actually to exist, omnipotent and can look after themselves. However a religion’s followers do have rights to worship in peace, without fear of violence or intimidation, and not be discriminated against. Other than that, like any idea, it is fair game.

The right to worship in peace is a crucial idea that goes two ways. No one must threaten you with violence or prohibit your worship – and neither must you use your worship to intimidate or threaten others.

The same goes for the right not to worship by the way – which covers apostasy, in case anyone thought I was forgetting about that by glibly declaring that religion is an easy choice.

So what about mockery?  As long as it adheres to the basic laws of discrimination outlined above, which are already established in our society, as Adam Ant once warbled: ‘Ridicule is, ridicule is, ridicule is nothing to be scared of….’

Crucially, mocking a religion, or the deeds of its followers, is not racism, nor is it any kind of excuse for racism. It just isn’t. And by the way, if individuals choose to use the religion/race distinction to cloak their own inherent racial prejudices that’s extremely frustrating, but it doesn’t undermine the logic of this vitally important distinction. Anyone with kids will know the difference between telling a child ‘you’re naughty’ and saying ‘that was a naughty thing to do’. The first degrades and belittles; the second may simply be a statement of fact, however hard for the child to hear.

In the case of Islam, the majority of Muslims are probably brown or black skinned – and if they are mocked on the basis of their colour, and for the simple state of being Muslim in the first place, then that is racism. But criticising a religion, its prophets (who are dead and legally beyond libel – no, seriously they are, I’m not being flippant…), the deities (see above for omnipotence or non existence) or people who do shite things in its name is not racism. Because Islam is largely associated with a couple of racial groups it’s easy to see where the conflation creeps in, but it is just that, a conflation. I’ve looked at quite a few Charlie Hebdo cartoons and covers – and they’re tough, uncompromising, arguably unpleasant, certainly lacking in taste at times – but I don’t get that they are crossing that line.

But, the argument runs, just because you have the right to offend, it doesn’t mean that you have to?  Isn’t the act of depicting anything that you know will offend, even in a satirical cause, deliberately targeting a group in order to hurt them? Isn’t that at best a fundamentalist aggressive use of free speech, or at worst the ‘r’ word again?!

Well it would be if you ran into a mosque waving the cartoon ‘A Star Is Born’ around.

Mohammed: A Star Is Born

Tough, tasteless, unpleasant. Yes, I know some may question my use of this cartoon at this point, but please stay with me…. there’s a payoff later, I promise.

That would be just plain rude, and you’d rightly get a punch in the face, or worse. However…

The rule not to depict Mohammed is one that applies (as I understand it) to Muslims, and that’s absolutely fine. But since when did we enter a world where one religion’s rule applied to non believers? Jews don’t expect non Jews to abstain from pork…. Or Catholics insist that Anglicans abstain from contraception or not have terminations (they may protest against abortion, but mostly adhere to the democratically accepted law of the land)… I could go on at length. Obviously, when I go into a mosque I remove my shoes, because I am a guest, and I cover my head in a synagogue, and take my hat off in a church… I can equally understand the logic that says that a public broadcaster paid for by everyone and going into their homes might choose to respect this edict (I understand it, although I don’t personally agree with it)…  But no one reasonably expects that any religion can dictate my diet or clothing in the secular public arena.  I simply don’t understand why Muslims alone among all religions should dictate what other people can draw or look at?  After all, there are 1.6 billion Muslims world wide and only 30,000 people paying for the privilege of being offended by Charlie Hebdo in a normal week. And it is a privilege – one I doubt that many of those who might be offended need encounter if they don’t want to. It’s hardly an act of bullying or oppression.

Yes but yes but yes but yes but… what about a cartoon depicting Jews in the holocaust, or someone falling from the Twin Towers, or a black man with a banana in a tree…

This is always said as if there’s only one answer to it, but there isn’t.  A cartoon is a form of art, and so the answer is: ‘It depends’. If you say in your cartoon that ‘all Jews are hook-nosed money grubbing bastards and isn’t it funny they all got gassed mwah ha ha’ then you’re into the realms of racial hatred, and incitement to genocide. If, however, you draw Benjamin Netenyahu building a wall, reminiscent of the nazi ghettos, to imprison the Palestinians, you are evoking the holocaust in order to comment on the behaviour of a modern Jewish state… and it’s fair comment about someone’s behaviour.

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Many Jews find this sort of thing highly offensive, but it’s rightly not illegal, and speaking as someone who is (half) Jewish I have no problem with that. There’s no problem using any stereotype in a cartoon – or in any work of art – it’s all about context. If we take context out of the equation suddenly we’re applying a literalist set of rules to satire which is anti humour, anti satire, anti art, anti intelligence…!

Yes but yes but yes but yes but!!!!  Who are you to decide what’s acceptable, Charlie-chops, you self satisfied white secular slightly Jewish Guardian reading liberal?! Even The Guardian doesn’t support you these days – spinning on its moralistic tail and disappearing up its own comment columns in a puff of semantics!! This free speech fundamentalism just won’t wash!! It’s a form of cultural arrogance! It’s impossible to come to any kind of judgement that doesn’t offend someone who lives round the corner so let’s grab the magic marker of fear and draw that mythical line RIGHT BACK HERE!!

Ehm.  Actually, we do already know how to do this.  Every day, Ofcom, The British Board of Film Censors, BBC Editorial Policy, the itv Compliance Unit make considered and rational decisions about things loitering on the grey and shifting boundaries of taste, decency and acceptability. It’s not so hard really.

Then there’s Billy Bragg. Remember him? The voice of solidarity. He was a miner apparently, and a docker, and a railway man – no really, he was! – but it turns out he’s a bit wobbly about being a Charlie. His reasoning goes, that Islam is ‘plagued by extremists’ (his words) and the non muslim world needs to extend the hand of friendship and agree to self censor in order to secure the help of moderate muslims in fighting the aberrant forces within its own ranks (I paraphrase).

Really? Is this some kind of trade-off of values? Who agreed the exchange rate? I mean it’s big of him and everything, but did he check first that ‘moderate Muslims’, or potentially extremist muslims were up for this swap, or did he just decide on his own that this would sort it? ‘They’ll be happy with that – where’s my guitar, I need to write another song about freedom and solidarity…’

I’ve got a feeling that the causes of young muslim alienation might run a little deeper than this.

We know they do, because hundreds of people are dying in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and apparently we’re all trivialising hypocrites because we’re getting wound up about a few french cartoonists.

Racist.  Fundamentalist.  Hypocrite. It’s so easy to throw these words around, isn’t it? Extremely easy to call anyone a hypocrite because no one is entirely consistent – especially a line of world leaders who look like they’re doing a bizarre hokey cokey.

Hebdo Hokey Cokey

It’s also extremely easy to accuse people of protesting against the wrong thing – there’s always a list of stuff more important you ought to be protesting about. It’s an easy accusation and just a bit meaningless. Why are you eating carrots???? You should be eating peas!!!

No. We’re not marching about Nigeria – not because we don’t care about Nigeria, but because we’re marching about what this attack represents, which does embody some fundamental principles.

And, crucially, having fundamental principles does not make a person a fundamentalist in the knee jerk pejorative sense of the word; just as failing to adhere precisely to a fundamental does not make a person a hypocrite. All principles are inherently aspirational. The declaring of principle is important because we publicly declare a benchmark against which we can be judged. The scornful cry of ‘hypocrite’ is a cry of defeat. Like all the other labels it closes the discussion down. No one can stand up for anything – and no one is fit to lead. Isn’t the world shit?

Well, actually, no it isn’t.

I’ll leave the last word to Charlie Hebdo. This week they came back with a commemorative issue featuring a front cover depicting Mohammed holding a Je Suis Charlie placard, a tear falling from his eye, and above him, the legend: ‘All is forgiven’.

All Is Forgiven - or is it?

By and large this was reported positively – including by the BBC. A moving response by the surviving members of the Hebdo team… provocative in its insistence on depicting the prophet, but reconciliatory in tone.  Awwww….

But hang on a sec. Flick your eyes up this (lengthy) blog (sorry!). Take a look at the “A Star Is Born” cartoon. Notice any similarity? Yup, Mohammed’s family jewels in all their glory echoed in the prophet’s headdress – the penile drip now a mournful tear.

As yet I’ve not heard Huw Edwards on the six o’clock news describe this as a picture of the prophet Mohammed with a cock and balls on his head – and that’s probably wise – but ignoring it altogether is a lost opportunity. It is cheeky, scurrilous, mischievous. Some might see it as a spiteful slap in the face. Personally I read it as saying: ‘Yes, we must forgive each other, but we’re still going to rip the shit out of you, because that’s what this is all about’.

I think it’s brilliant; it’s smart, it challenges the viewer to look with intelligence and think about a whole narrative that extends over years. It demands that you look at it with a sense of context. It is funny…. and it is art.

It has many different things to say and like all good art it acknowledges that more than one thing can be emotionally true at one time.

The right to do this without fear is why I am – fundamentally – Charlie.

 

In which a raddled old leftie feels bewildered because surely holding Islam to account for the behaviour of extreme elements within it is what Socialism is all about.

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Yes, I am going to post something about Charlie Hebdo.  If you’re sick of the whole thing, look away now.

But I am bewildered.  Almost everything that can be said, has been said, however there is something being repeated – mainly by those on the liberal left – which seems to go unchallenged, and sends my little head spinning.

Ok, so I will paraphrase, and I hope that no one feels I am misrepresenting the thrust of this, but when there are calls for a more forthright response from the Muslim community, there’s a chorus of: ‘Why should ordinary Muslims be held accountable for the actions of a few nutters?  Extremist Islam, Jihadism etc is a perversion of the true faith of Islam.  This has nothing to do with Islam.  To ask for this is to be Islamophobic.  Why should ordinary Muslims even have to justify or dissociate themselves from these psychopaths? And as for apologising? That’s just a ridiculous offensive thing to expect…  And, yeah, why do people keep going on about it?  How many times to ordinary mainstream Muslims have to say this is nothing to do with them and condemn it?’

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The comedian Mark Steel wrote a piece for The Independent about this last week.  He wryly commented that Norwegian Christians weren’t expected to apologise for the massacre carried out by Anders Breivik; moderate Geordies weren’t expected to denounce the actions of Raoul Moat; and as for Americans, they can talk, he commented ironically, after all you can’t imagine someone going berserk with a gun in a public place there.

It was these comments – and similar that I heard elsewhere – that sparked my reaction, because, hang on a minute Mark Steel et al, the notion of a moderate community being asked to hold the actions of its transgressors to account applies in all three of those cases… and there are lots and lots and lots of other examples to add to it.

Ok, so Anders Breivik.  The week after his terrible killing spree, there was endless soul searching.  How could such a poisonous ideology be allowed to vent itself in our society?  Was he psychotic or idealised, or both?  Were there signs that should have been spotted?  Were their things in his upbringing, in Norwegian society, that provoked his dangerous state of mind?  What should Norwegian society do to prevent this from ever happening again?  It would have been easy to simply write him off as a lone nutter and not even bother talking about it, but they, and we, did, because in western democracies we think collectively.

And then there’s Raoul Moat. I’ve read a lot about him because I wrote a play a year or two back based largely on his awful end story.  Did Geordies feel accountable for him?  You bet they bloody did.  Acres was written on the subject, phone-ins on Radio 5 were jammed with calls, much of it similar to the Breivik debate, but with a slightly different spin: Was Moat a phenomenon rooted in white working class culture that needed to be addressed?  And in Moat’s case all sorts of people are considered culpable for what happened for not doing enough to check his growing madness and paranoia.  Again there is very strong evidence to say he was simply an extremely disturbed individual, but yes, still, the community from whence he originated engaged in some lengthy soul searching (and sadly, in another parallel there are still some people in that community who view him as a hero and a martyr to this day).

And lastly to spree killers in the US.  What happens every time one of these awful atrocities occurs? Soul searching, that’s what.  America is held to account collectively, condemned for its veneration of personal gun ownership.  The NRA repeatedly protest; ‘It’s not guns that are at fault – it’s gun owners! How many times do we have to tell you?’ And anti gun lobbyists (many of them cut from the same lefty cloth as me and Mark Steel) come back and say: ‘That simply isn’t good enough.  This keeps happening.  You need to bloody well DO something about it.  You need to take responsibility for your own community.  Although these are a handful disturbed individuals in a country of 400m, you clearly have a cultural problem which must be addressed.’

Let’s spread the net a bit wider.  Let’s look at another religion.  Catholicism.  As we all know it has recently been rocked to its core by hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse  by male priests.   Are all catholic priests child abusers?  Of course they aren’t.  Is Catholicism itself a source of evil?  I would definitely say not (although I know people who would!).  But should the Catholic church take responsibility for the crimes of child abuse committed under its cloak of authority?  Of course it should (and finally it is – hurrah!).  Should the Pope take responsibility for this, even though I imagine he has never abused a child in his life?  Yes.  And crucially, should ordinary Catholics bear this weight as well?  Well of course they bloody should. And they have.  How can I be so sure of this? Because for years, everyone tried to pretend that this wasn’t happening.  It was only when it got into the public arena, and ordinary catholics were empowered so that they could collectively work together to make sure that the decency of the majority of believers prevailed over the exploitation of their church’s hierarchy that (hopefully) such systemic abuse started to become thing of the past.

How about a pop at the Jews. I’m half Jewish by the way, which informs this. Should Jews be held accountable for the actions of the state of Israel?  Of course we bloody should.  We can’t pretend that what’s going on with the Palestinians isn’t anything to do with being Jewish, or collective Jewish history.  Of course it is, for reasons that should probably be the subject of another blog – and the relationship between being Jewish and the State of Israel is highly complex, and full of sensitivities, but to pretend that somehow the actions of right wing Zionists are divorced from Jewry as a whole is ridiculous. That doesn’t mean ‘all Jews are right wing nationalists’ but we all have a responsibility in some small way as to where the narrative goes.  And the world won’t stop holding Israel and Jews to account until the problem is resolved.  I’d go as far as to say that the constant refrain ‘this has nothing to do with being Jewish as such’ isn’t helpful at all!  If we keep saying that then we’ll never solve anything.

And one last religion? Football. No one would deny that football has, in the past, been intermittently plagued with violence and racism. Of course it would be ridiculous to posit that all football supporters are racist and violent. But it would be equally ridiculous somehow to pretend that violence and racism weren’t endemic in the British game, and certainly it was the case in the 60s, 70s and early 80s that the whole of British Football was tarred with this brush (and outraged supporters would ring phone-ins proclaiming: ‘But these thugs aren’t real football supporters!’).

Sooo… here’s the question. Was it wrong for the general public to look at football as a whole and say: ‘We want you to clean up your act’? Whether the answer to that is yes or no (a different debate perhaps), in the end it has been up to the football worshipping community as a whole to make sure that these patterns of behaviour are banished from within their own ranks – and indeed that process is still ongoing.

I could go on and on and on – the British Empire (constant calls for reparations and apologies), apartheid, slavery, Bloody Sunday (many aspects of the war in Northern Ireland) etc etc etc – all aberrations of society which require people from the top and bottom of society to take collective responsibility, to apologise, to recognise the need for change, and to work collectively to effect that change.  And they all start with a group of people saying – even if they are not the perpetrators themselves – it was us; it is our responsibility to put things right, it is through collective responsibility that society IS society and communities have the ability to change.

I don’t see the Muslim community as exempt from this.  And as Mark Steel drew that comparison with American spree killers, let’s run with that.  We keep chewing at America’s heels about their terrible gun laws because it keeps happening, because the problem seems to be getting worse not better.  It’s not a direct equivalent, but there is a striking similarity with Jihadist violence.  It’s not getting better.  There is clearly something within the Muslim community that needs addressing.

But, runs the counter argument to that, it’s all of our problem.  Why land it on the Muslim community?  That’s Islamohpobic, that’s racist!

No, it’s not racist.  It’s specific.  I, as a white, British, half Jewish, non Muslim libertarian lefty intellectual can no more get to the heart of how to steer young Muslims away from violent Jihad than I can really lecture a Mid West NRA advocate on the merits of gun control.  In the end both these groups, like many others, do have to sort this stuff out themselves.

After all, the non muslim west has tried to intervene on the behalf of moderate Islam for the last however many years… and I’m sure we’re all agreed that that has hardly been a success.

So, yes, as a raddled old leftie, I DO want the Muslim community to get its act together to fight extremism.  A few spokespeople on Newsnight or Channel 4 is not enough. I am repeatedly assured that of course this internal dialogue is going on, but I reserve the right to keep asking until I see some change, just as we hold all sorts of bodies and communities to account until we see change.  I will keep writing to the Israeli embassy about Gaza; and I will still view the Catholic church with wariness; and demand of myself and everyone I know that we take responsibility for the basics of human discourse.  If I hear someone being racist, I challenge them about it, and see it as a personal failure, if I bottle out.  And I feel particularly responsible for my own communities – British, Jewish, Middle Class, White, Male…  I know I have added responsibility for the actions of my own and I expect to be called to account when those communities fail. I don’t expect a free pass because it’s one of my own letting the side down. Collective responsibility is at the heart of socialism – but it isn’t evenly spread – all of us have some people for whom we are more responsible than others.

Or as some people might put it satirically….

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Mohammed is overwhelmed by extremists. He says: ‘it’s tough to be worshipped by idiots…’