Tag Archives: Politics

Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The drama of news headlines

 

Newspapers are less important than they used to be, as proved by years of declining circulation. Perhaps no surprise, then, that newspaper headlines now are often long, plain and inelegant.

One recent example which bucked the trend was “Enemies of the people”, the Daily Mail’s concise and provocative description of the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should vote to begin the UK’s process to leave the European Union.

It recalled another Daily Mail headline from those earlier days of high circulation and political influence: “The Enemy Within”, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s criticism of the miners’ during the 1984-1985 strike.

A few more from that era stick in my mind. When Arthur Ashe defeated the favourite Jimmy Connors to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon in 1975, more than one paper saw the available pun. “King Arthur’s court”, The Observer stated. However, the Sunday Express extended it more eloquently to “Connors bows at the court of King Arthur”.

In 1979, the announcement that Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had been a Soviet spy since his youth resonated perfectly with the popularity of John Le Carré’ s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its TV adaptation. The Glasgow Herald borrowed one of Le Carré’s great pieces of espionage jargon for their headline of “Mole at the Palace”, but I thought Blunt’s character suited better the more old-fashioned, and more stylish, phrasing by the Daily Mail: “Traitor at the Queen’s right hand”.

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the most dramatic media events in my lifetime. Most of the press and TV coverage at that time made me wince, and its polarising effect is shown well in the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears film The Queen.

However, one headline which I did admire came from the Glasgow Herald at the start of that dramatic week in 1997 when Diana’s body was flown back from Paris to RAF Northolt. “Home – to a nation of broken hearts” displayed assonance, alliteration and an appropriate sense of rhythm.

 

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The future of political activism

 

The political world has become more confusing and less understandable, so it is often argued, by such unexpected events as the election of US President Donald Trump and the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. 

So how might an informed and sensitive citizen respond? What ideas and actions might be appropriate? Inside or outside the conventional political system?

One of the more successful single-issue activism campaigns of the recent past in terms of media attention gained was Occupy. Micah White, a former leader, said on TV around the time of Donald Trump’s election that Occupy had once united right and left wing activists in a single issue but now the two camps had been split. He felt that activist groups now had to build towards the old-fashioned target of winning elections to legislatures and executives.

In turn, former US President Barack Obama, in his farewell speech in Chicago,  encouraged his audience to participate politically both through community organising and through elected office.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that any social and political challenges might be best addressed by “the technology sector” rather than in “politics”. I interpreted his term “politics” as meaning in the party and electoral sense in which he had been so successful rather than in street protests. By “technology”, he may mean private technology companies, private-public partnerships or future life-transforming inventions.  

In the past, single issue campaigns often gained separate long-term and substantial support within electoral and party politics. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign  – I’m sure they all still lobby at political party conferences and other big events. We all remember the past cross-party celebrity-led campaigns against third world poverty and debt, against apartheid in South Africa.

Single-issue campaigns seem to have lost their profile in recent years. Organisations like Amnesty International do sometimes gain a media platform for their arguments, but equal if not greater attention seems to now go to the well-funded think tanks like the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tax Payers Alliance, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

How is political activity carried out now?  People often create new personalised political protest groups rather than join existing ones. The internet, especially the existence of Facebook and Twitter, has allowed events to be quickly organised but has also led to the phenomenon of “clicktivism”, by which people do little more than read a website or e-mail the promise of a donation. I have also long felt that users of Twitter express their political views in a particularly  aggressive and unhealthy way and have long felt alarmed by the way that the mainstream press and TV depend on it so heavily. 

 Although relatively young at 36, activist artist Ellie Harrison is part of an older tradition.  Her most recent project, The Glasgow Effect, got a huge amount of media attention when it was launched a year ago and rather less during its year-long progress. The talk she gave last month when the project ended  was thought-provoking in its analysis of the allocation of wealth and public resources within Glasgow and further afield and how people might work to improve it. .

A practitioner in the conceptualist tradition, Harrison sees the artist as being someone who can and should  channel his/her creative energies away from career indulgence, which merely adds “unnecessary objects to the world”, and towards efforts to create a more just society.  The personal qualities which artists possess and develop, like persistence, willingness to work hard, confidence, arrogance, flexibility and spontaneity, make them particularly suited to such activism.   

Following that dictum that artists should not merely create new objects, Harrison stated that, during the 12 months of her funding by Creative Scotland, she spent most time and energy in organising and participating in political events and campaigns, and her literary output consisted mostly of newsletters and e-mails and Facebook posts canvassing support for and reporting on these.  

Old fogies like me are used to hearing younger people exalt modern technology (just like we did to our parents) so I was especially interested that Harrison feels like me that social media is not a good forum for activism. It is good for organising public events, she agrees, but otherwise it is “a beast out of control” where people behave much more badly than they do in public spaces or in one to one contact. “It is not social in the slightest”, she added; the individual user is already usually in a private space and the technology tends to increase the sense of isolation. 

Harrison’s talk referenced an earlier project where she devised guidelines by which artists (by which she probably means everybody) might live their lives fruitfully in the modern world. These guidelines included: view the world objectively, analyse critically the way it works, develop ways of working outside established institutions, work collectively rather than competitively and resist career ambitions.

So it might be said that Ellie Harrison has reached similar conclusions as has Carol Craig –  mentioned in a Leaf Collecting post last month, if from a different direction and through a slightly different perspective. By further coincidence, Think Globally Act Locally –  a phrase recalled in that previous post – was an earlier working title of Harrison’s project. 

 

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The personal benefits of looking outwards

 

Often society can agree on a problem without agreeing on a solution. In recent times, many people across all age groups have been felt to be suffering from anxiety due to a range of causes, and mental health is a great social and political concern.

Although we might hesitate to apply blame too specifically, especially if it would make us seem too conservative or old-fashioned, there is often a general shared diagnosis that some of the forces which used to help keep society calm and healthy  – family, employment, religion, community – no longer, rightly or wrongly, are able to do so in the same way.

Carol Craig, in a post from her Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, encourages a move away from materialism and towards spirituality as one step which would reduce anxiety in modern life.

Interest in conventional religion has dropped significantly in the UK in recent decades, so it is striking that often we try to hold on to elements of spiritual and religious life even as we re-characterise ourselves as secular. One of these elements which has come into vogue is mindfulness, being aware of yourself and your thoughts and feelings with a view to striving to develop senses of calmness, gratitude, pleasure and kindness.

Some educationalists have gone so far as recommend the practice of mindfulness in schools as they feel that the decline in Christian or other religious assemblies has made pupils less aware of the importance of reflection and spirituality. 

Although media reports usually mention the Buddhist origins of mindfulness, it bears similarities also to Christian prayer. Those of us who are Christians know we should pray to God to thank him for the physical and spiritual benefits he has already given us just as often as to seek help and support for the future.  I was struck to read a Christian minister and academic, Dr Ian Bradley, recently make this point explicitly.

 “Mindfulness is a profoundly Christian thing”, he said, so “the Church…should be encouraged to get more involved in pilgrimage, spiritual adventures that focus on mindfulness and meditation.”

Moving a little from the personal to the public space, Carol Craig suggests another valuable way to improve well-being is to look away from yourself and your immediate feelings and problems. Instead, take part in community activities, or in the work of organisations which share your views and values – a church, trade union, charity or political party.

Mindfulness was among many ideas covered in Swapping Psalms for Pop Songs, a rather non-pithy title for a recent BBC Radio 4 programme on the Sunday Assembly. This organisation, which launched itself as “the atheist church” which celebrates life and helps others, identifies itself specifically with community and social co-operation.  Its various local branches have allied themselves with food banks, health groups and housing associations.  

Ministers from different Christian denominations were both supportive and critical of the Sunday Assembly and presenter Mark Vernon suggested that this might mean that the organisation was “refreshing” a modern concept of spirituality. In the programme, academic Linda Woodhead emphasised that many people nowadays who see themselves as non-religious are not atheist. In the past, church congregations regularly included people of modest faith who saw them as “hospitable…filling stations” at certain stages of their lives. Nowadays, she argued, churches are seen primarily for the strongly committed and the more agnostic do not feel they have anywhere to go.

I do tend to share the view that any individual who has been a practising Christian all his or her life has probably become more strongly committed as the years have passed. It is also true that different times and events in your life might attract you towards or discourage you away from an organised religion. However, I definitely do not think that most Christian church leaders nowadays are dogmatic. Most whom I have observed have a very strong sympathy towards human frailty and inconsistency, and they both speak and practise the language of compassion.  They are very happy for people to join or rejoin their congregations at any time when those people feel that God is speaking to them.

I strongly share the view of Carol Craig and others that a way for any individual to reduce personal anxiety and to increase personal happiness is to practise a positive appreciation for the things which every day are going well in your life, and to share your talents and interests with others.

And to apply anew that dictum which was often quoted among political and social activists in the past:  think globally, but act locally. 

  

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Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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Fearties, procrastinators and forelock-tuggers

 

At the recent royal opening of the new session of the Scottish Parliament, members of the Scottish Youth Theatre gave a presentation of the great Edwin Morgan poem which was written for the Parliament’s opening in 2004. It is often tempting to compare the daily functioning of the Scottish Parliament with how Morgan imagined it.

His first lines are about the Parliament’s architecture, which certainly caused controversy well before it opened. A building of “curves and caverns” rather than of “Gothic grandeur” or of “imperial marble”, Enric Miralles’ design probably still incites comments among visitors, although I feel the two views you normally see on TV, the chamber and that internal staircase where TV addresses and interviews take place, always look bright and attractive.  I was however quite shocked to find on my single visit that the main public entrance is so much lower and darker than expected (partly because of the inevitable space for security precautions).

The debating chamber was built in a semi-circle to distinguish it from Westminster and to discourage the aggressive adversarial practices of the UK Parliament, which are so often criticised. The individual workstations do give the impression of a modern grown-up office space rather than merely an arena for rhetoric and heckling. Sitting space is more civilised and generous. Despite all this, and its smaller number of members, the Westminster habits of shouting and cheering and blaming and insults appear to have continued. Certainly it provides copy for the journalists, who are after all among its most regular visitors.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are different from those to the UK Parliament, being by a form of proportional representation. However many other features are similar to Westminster.  The elected representatives are entitled MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) which is perhaps a bit close to MPs (Members of (the UK) Parliament). The group of senior government ministers had always been called the Cabinet, so it was perhaps no surprise when the SNP later exalted these ministers to the grander Westminster title of Secretary. The weekly First Minister’s Question Time is constructed in a similar adversarial way to Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons – “it is the most popular session of Parliament and demand for tickets is extremely high”, says the Parliament website presumably without irony.

In Morgan’s poem, some of his strongest phrases are directed towards political misbehaviour. He warned against “fearties…procrastinators….forelock-tuggers”, and, especially, those prone to explaining inaction and incompetence with “the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’”. He wanted elected members to be “open and adventurous”.

Whether Morgan’s wishes have been granted or not may depend on your political opinion. I tend to feel that on many occasions members of all political parties have been guilty of cowardice, inertia and making excuses. An individual’s statements can change dramatically depending on whether he or she is in power or in opposition. The political party which is most often in power in Scottish local government tends to blame its inertia on the party which is currently in power in the Scottish Parliament which in turn tends to blame either the party of local government or the different party which is in power in the UK Parliament. Such unsatisfactory behaviour probably applies in other countries’ governments, but not all have Morgan’s stirring words to inspire them.

I remember, in the earlier years of the Scottish Parliament, in answer to some public criticism about whether this new assembly was achieving anything at all useful, the then SNP leader Alex Salmond replied to the effect that there was a difference between a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish government. Certainly, after 17 years of a Scottish Parliament and the major devolution of government functions which have involved all political parties, there is, regrettably, plenty of evidence that poverty, homelessness and low educational achievement continue in many parts of Scotland.

Is it an inevitable result of growing old that you find your elected representatives less and less satisfactory? When young you may feel angry about injustice and poverty but still suspect that perhaps those in power really are more experienced and more knowledgeable and wiser and perhaps those social problems really are as hard to fix as they say. When you’re older than most of your elected representatives you know that that is unfortunately not true and that failure is caused by incompetence, lack of effort or inappropriate political choices.

Once long ago I was attracted to the example of Cincinnatus, the Roman who was willing to give up his power as a dictator once his designated task was complete and to retire to his farm. So different from modern political careerists who are so eloquent at self-justification!

Maybe the answer is to apply the ideals of Edwin Morgan’s poem to ourselves, each in our individual social and public lives?

 

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Remembering the Rising

 

Nobody now sees Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising entirely in the romantic and heroic light in which it was once presented, even if they respect the great writers associated with it, such as W.B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. Plenty of information is now available about such features as the fatal and avoidable flaws in its organisation and the number of civilian casualties which resulted.

Heather Jones’ two programmes for BBC Radio 4, The Easter Rising 1916 ,were informative and fair about the actual events of April 1916, but, for me, especially enlightening on the different ways the Rising has been remembered since.

A key role in this has been played by the controversial and divisive but intriguing figure of Eamon de Valera. The one leader of the Rising who was not executed, possibly because he was a US citizen or possibly just due to his good luck; who later undermined the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiated by his friend and comrade Michael Collins which led to the Civil War; and who then led Ireland over 40 years as Taioseach and President during a period which is generally felt now to have been one of unhealthy social, religious and cultural conservatism.  

It was de Valera’s anti-Treaty Republicans, the losing side in the Civil War, who “appropriated ” the first commemorations of the Rising, said one contributor, Mary Daly, and it was they  who “claimed the spirit of 1916”.  Over the next decades, as Jones expressed it, de Valera “sacralised the Rising as a way of unifying the Irish people”. Gradually, however, perspectives did shift.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, said Fearghal McGarry, it was the violence of the Rising which was emphasised and criticised, while, in the 21st century, its socialist and feminist elements have been given greater attention.

 

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The Four Courts in Dublin, one of the combat zones during the Rising.

 

In general, the established commemoration of the Rising over the decades meant that the Irish fighting alongside the British during World War One became overshadowed, said John Horne. With subsequent Irish neutrality in World War Two and the later Troubles in Northern Ireland, it became “almost a taboo” to mention it, “a frozen memory” which, he suggested, has only recently become “unfrozen”. Furthermore, the British casualties of the Rising are rarely remembered, with the small memorial in the grounds of Trinity College Dublin regularly overlooked.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the Rising in 1966 was on a large scale and envisioned by President de Valera as a way to “rejuvenate a nation”. It included what sounds like a fascinating television programme by the national broadcaster RTE called Insurrection, a drama documentary which presented the events over eight nights in the format of news bulletins. An artistic device which was employed around the same time by the Peter Watkins film The War Game and has been recycled in the UK in more recent times, I seem to recall, in commemorating anniversaries in the two World Wars.

 

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The Parnell Monument in Dublin to an earlier Irish nationalist leader had only recently been opened at the time of the 1916 Rising.

 

Several contributors analysed perceived connections between the ostentatious commemorations of 1966 in both Ireland and Northern Ireland with the rise of republican violence in the province from 1968. Terence O’Neill, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was said to have commented that large numbers of nationalists on the streets brandishing Irish tricolours provided unfortunate inspiration for both the nationalist and unionist communities. Margaret O’Callaghan dubbed this period “a pre-Troubles Troubles.” One particular outdoor event of Easter 1966, the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin by an IRA group, can be readily seen now as highly shocking and inflammatory.

No surprise, perhaps, that the present Irish government was nervous at first at how the centenary of the Rising might be marked. The initial publicity imagined a programme which emphasised aims which were inclusive and scholarly, so as not to undermine the political progress of the recent past. However, it was felt that the radical national origins of the Rising could not be ignored and the exhumation and state funeral of 1916 veteran Thomas Kent took place with an oration by Taioseach Enda Kenny which recalled Padraig Pearse’s oration for O’Donovan Rossa.  Jones also highlighted the reconciliatory initiative of a commemoration wall at Glasnevin cemetery which names the dead people of the Rising from all sides.

 

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Kilmainham Jail, where the leaders of the Rising were imprisoned and executed, was closed as a prison in 1924 and in later years became a museum and art gallery.

 

A tangential reference to one of the better-known films set during the 1916 period, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. It was a film I liked much more the second time when I saw it as a lively thriller with some basis in fact rather than an authentic historical biography. I have often wondered if, instead of Liam Neeson, its producers ever considered casting as Collins a younger actor who bears a striking physical similarity to him, who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, who would in 1995 have also been a reasonably bankable choice, and who would certainly have the acting range to convey fully the complexity and charisma of Collins: Kenneth Branagh. Until I find out the answer to that question, I can acknowledge that their choice of Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera was definitely a good one.

 

  

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