Friday, 29 May 2015

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke…

It doesn’t hurt me.
Do you want to feel how it feels?
Do you want to know that it doesn’t hurt me?
Do you want to hear about the deal that I’m making?
You, it’s you and me.

And if I only could,
I’d make a deal with God,
And I’d get him to swap our places,
Be running up that road,
Be running up that hill,
Be running up that building.
– Kate Bush: Running up that hill (a deal with God)

I do not know if you are this nasty to everyone. My suspicion, though, is that – like every bully I have ever encountered (and from whom, ironically, I have learned some indispensable life-lessons) – you saw me parked there, with my Blue Badge, in the Disabled parking space, and simply marked me out as defenceless: someone who would (or could) not fight back against your customary, coarse, crude cant; your recurrent torrent of stunted invective; your pathological fist in my face; your visceral urge to beat me to a pulp. Probably, my refusal to engage you, to engage with you – and my constant expression of dumbfounded bemusement (a defence mechanism of sorts – although I will admit that such spitefulness did take me by surprise: most folk, I have found, are deserving of their space on our tiny planet…) – only aggravated you more: as I was not willing to play along with your stinted, spiteful expectation of a script; nor reward your nonexistent insight, your self-evident innate insecurity.

I am glad, though, that I riled you – at the time – at least as much as you riled me; that, once the onlookers had dispersed, you felt compelled to return and resume your tyranny: because I had not given you the demeaning satisfaction that obviously motivates you. I am sad, though, for the disruption you caused to those other people’s lives: both that they had to witness your attack on me (although one was gracious, then, to offer compassionate support – something I cannot imagine you are capable of comprehending); and that you then took your pathetic impotence out on those who hindered your deranged exit from the scene. I can only hope that you did no more physical or psychological damage once out of sight.

As it is unlikely that you will ever read this (or understand it), I can be pretty certain that you will never gloat over my solitary sleepless night, caused by the traumatic resurrection of submerged spectres; nor the pain that presently haunts the gnawed, raw hollow within. That would no doubt encourage you to endlessly repeat your tiny-minded rituals on those less able to cope. (Once I have published this, though, I will, as they say, sleep like a babe: confident of my moral victory.)

I know I should pity you for your tantrums. A grown man should have more control over his immaturity, his inner, infantile demons. But I do not feel sorry for you in any way. I sympathize with those who know you better (or more thoroughly, should I say) than I; who have to live with such a poor, domineering representative of the human race – that is, of course, should anyone be foolish enough to be in your solipsistic presence for more than a few moments – but all I actually wish for you is two things. The first such hope – from the deep dark side that most of us learned to curb in childhood – is that you would simply vanish from existence, instantly: causing no collateral damage to anyone or anything; nor impinging on their memories. The second is that, one day soon, you find yourself forced uncomfortably into the same sharp corner you tried – but failed – to terrorize me into. I am not convinced, though, that you have one neuron of empathy within you. You are obviously too accustomed to instantly wielding the only weapon in your arsenal – that of thuggish belligerence – to always try to get what you want (however petty); and in response to anything that thwarts the meanness of your paltry reality.

If you do read this, please know that I have reported you to the Police: that your behaviour has been classed as a ‘hate crime’ against the disabled. Whether or not they take my complaint seriously may depend, I accept, on a number of factors. However, please also know that composing my account for them helped me regain both my composure and the self-belief I had felt falling from between my shaking fingers like so many grains of burning sand. Even if they take action, I acknowledge, somewhat dejectedly, that your demeanour is unlikely to alter: that your behaviour stems from a narrowness of emotion and meagreness of imagination that will never be changed. What a wretched existence. You must be so very lonely.

Thursday, 28 May 2015


I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.

Having arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon (“Well, this is the Forest of Arden”) only relatively recently, I suppose, initially, I felt behoved to attend the RSC as often as I could; but, as my hearing has faded – along with neurological deficits that mean I now struggle with tonality, with the pitch of music that is new to me – I have found drama overtaking the concerts and recitals that used to be my lifeblood. In fact, it would probably be no understatement to say that I am becoming quite addicted to the theatre – both to the place, and to the performances. Nonetheless, I do appreciate how “so very fortunate” we are in having such a cornucopia of high-calibre culture on our doorstep. (Having moved here from London – with its embarras de richesses – it would be all too easy to complain of the opposite: but, by way of illustration, Compton Verney’s hoard of great art is simply a stone’s throw away; and we have – should you need an injection of superior music-making – both the Orchestra of the Swan and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra within arm’s reach.)

So it was, last night, that I found myself seated close to the stage, full of anticipation, waiting to see The Jew of Malta again. And I was not disappointed. In fact, exactly the opposite. The production seems to have relaxed into a thing of great joy: even better paced; apparently more spontaneous; and featuring a company that is obviously at ease with itself. Of course, increased familiarity with the play, and being eyeball-to-eyeball with such confident characterization – enabling me to make fresh connections, and discover previously-unrealized subtleties – may have helped; but there are, as Mrs Bard shrewdly states, some works “that benefit from more than one reading”. And this, undoubtedly, is one!

I have to say that Rhiannon Handy, stepping unto the breach as Abigail (whilst continuing her non-speaking part as ‘Attendant’), contributed greatly to this: showing a maturity and sagacity in the rôle that I am sure augurs extremely well for her future (and for the rest of the season at the Swan). The range of her delivery and facial expressions – from self-conscious to coquettish; doleful to delightful – masterfully matched Jasper Britton’s increasingly lovable rogue at every move.

Again, though, the Swan was nowhere near full: so please help in sustaining one of the very best theatres in the country – with some of our very best actors – by grabbing a ticket (or six); or even becoming a member or supporter. The Jew of Malta is on until 8 September 2015.

A novel can tell you everything you want to know about what it’s trying to say, but plays are by definition incomplete. They are instructions for performance, like musical scores, and they need players to become music…. A play’s meaning is conferred on it by the act of playing it.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

A rap (sort of) – but not on the knuckles – for those in chronic pain…

Make it real
Remembering Ian Dury (1942-2000)

Build me a butty
(fry the bacon
fill me up)
Hand me the pills
(hate the flavour
gulp them down)
Push me to putty
(play the music
turn it up)
Help me walk hills
(climb through torture
feel let down)

spin me around
Tell me you’ll cure me
and make it real

Help me be frisky
(feign my comfort
buckle down)
Hand me the cream
(smooth my aching
lift me up)
Pour me a whisky
(take your time now
come on down)
Build me a dream
(brighten the world
give it up)

spin me around
Tell me you’ll cure me
and make it real

Up the creek
Down and dirty
Up and about
Down and out
Lighten up
Knuckle down
The game is up
So knock me down
I’m coming up roses
So lead me down
the garden path

spin me around
Tell me you’ll cure me
and make it real

spin me around
Tell me you’ll cure me
and make it real
Make it heal

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Up to Parr…

When I (and probably you) think of Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto), I think of his great compositions, with their great expanses of great sky; his stunning attention to architectural precision, observed with a keen draughtsman’s eye; his transparent use of paint to render light and shadow on stone and brick as well as any modern photographer. When I think of Canaletto, I therefore think of buildings – cityscapes that have never been surpassed – usually seen reflected across shimmering water. However, in Compton Verney’s current exhibition, Canaletto: Celebrating Britain, two things caught my attention that I would never (through my own ignorance) have attributed to him – because I have never spent so much time before staring deep into his work, glasses perched on the tip of my nose, seeing his creations afresh, startled by his obvious skill and intelligence… – firstly, his wonderful use of ink and wash in his ‘sketches’ for his larger works; and, secondly, his superb portrayals (in any medium) of the people who inhabit them, and therefore bring his masterpieces to life. Oh, and there’s nearly always a dog in there, somewhere…!

The figures – especially in the pen-and-ink drawings – are caught with a minimum of fuss, but a maximum of proficiency: simple strokes (and magical, minuscule sparkling white dots for lit cotton) that delineate their poses: boatmen pulling heftily on their oars, or gondoliers sculling, muscling their rèmi into the deep Venetian waters – sometimes in the foreground, where, again, astonishing, almost Rembrandt-like interest and detail are brought to bear; although these craft frequently move out of shot, half-captured: adding even richer verisimilitude to the pictures. There is something particularly fluid about these characters: who contrast beautifully with the immutability of the solid, ruled world they inhabit. And each is recognizably an individual. (My favourites? The two servants beating the large rug, just catching the sun, in London: the Old Horse Guards from St James’ Park.)

If I initially visited the gallery for Canaletto, I lingered much, much longer for The Non-Conformists: Photographs by Martin Parr – in a much calmer, thankfully less-crowded setting. This is photography at its most powerful, its most human: monochrome explorations of the soul, of close communities, of the realities of life – and all captured with both deep pathos and wit. If you don’t believe that the camera is an equal tool to the brush, then this exhibition, I hope, will change your mind.

I left with misted eyes (and will return so, no doubt) and a deep contentment: not only for remembered moments parallel to many of my own youth (based on foundations set deep, also, in the heritage of my grandad’s and mum’s Yorkshire Methodist upbringings); but for the sincerity and sympathy of observation. I must – as did others – have chuckled out loud at some of the absurdities, too: the man on the step-ladder, in Hebden Bridge, one foot firmly anchored in nothingness; the Silver Jubilee street party, Elland, suddenly abandoned, and washed out by torrential rain of a very certain Northern kind. You could hear the absent children screaming and giggling as they ran for shelter.

This is art at least as great as Canaletto’s – but now filling each frame with the characters that were once rendered small by their surrounding built environment – filling them with radiance that emanates from within; painting the people large, the centre of our attention (even when they are present only by their previous actions). The buildings – as beautiful as they are, to my Pennine gaze – now there only to cradle these vivid beings, give them context. This art is also – as it should be – honest: you do not feel the touch of manipulation of poses or settings; the light and situations are natural; and there is the same thoughtful attention to detail. This is how it was; and, in these moments made permanent, how these graceful mortals will remain. I can think of no better memorial; and am grateful for the opportunity to bear witness.

Back outside in the grounds, under the glooming clouds; then re-exploring the memorials in the crumbling chapel; I felt a deeper connection – fanciful, perhaps – to those who had gone before; had made this world for us; left their gentle, subtle marks on both the physical and mental landscape I now inhabit. Such – as I have said before – is the potency of Art: not just to entertain, or to move us; or to make us ask more valuable questions of those, and that, which surrounds us; but to enrich all that comes after. We are so very fortunate….

Friday, 15 May 2015

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge…?

Your extreme right does me exceeding wrong…
– Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

Not actually a reference to last week’s national and district election results (unless you want it to be); but in all likelihood a twisted, academic allusion to Antigone. And yet “wretched Barabas”, the eponymous ‘Jew of Malta’, who proclaims the above, is not, in the end, solely a victim of downright racism (and, it has to be said, his own ineptitude), but what James R Siemon describes as his “unabashed materialism [and] self-proclaimed conscienceless egocentrism”: which, coupled with all parties’ Machiavellian “self-interest as a universal rule of political conduct” means maybe there are contemporary parallels to be inferred, after all….

No, Barabas is born to better chance,
And framed of finer mould than common men,
That measure nought but by the present time.

Besides, such political paranoia is not assuaged by witnessing the play’s constant barrages of hypocrisy: power, greed, and cunning, eclipsing any professed religious creed – a theme Marlowe had earlier invoked in Tamburlaine – whatever a character’s race or faith (Christian, Jew, or Muslim); nor the explicit Elizabethan animosity of “merchant ‘strangers’” (immigrants) with their “emergent capitalism” – obviously, as the modern trope goes, “comin’ over ’ere and takin’ our jobs”. However, Jasper Britton’s superb, full-ranging portrayal – despite our anti-hero’s rather obvious and barbarous flaws – often provokes a knowing sympathy (which he then mocks all “worldlings” for; and repudiates with increasing, uproarious and complex – finally self-defeating – savagery. However, although there are strong resonances, Barabas is far more vengeful than Shylock in the mass of flesh he seeks – but also then repeatedly, remorselessly exacts: usually at arm’s length).

Why stand you thus unmoved with my laments?
Why weep you not to think upon my wrongs?
Why pine not I, and die in this distress?

There are, though, obvious parallels with Shakespeare’s famous portrayal of anti-Semitism, its effects, and recourse to “the law” – and it is therefore fitting that, opening in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the night I attended the Swan, was The Merchant of Venice. My feeling is that each play – however captivating and challenging: as The Jew of Malta indubitably is – will shed reflected light onto the other: making clear leitmotivs and variations we may not have quite expected; but also revealing (and projecting long shadows on) parts of the human condition we would, in real life, rather not confront. Perhaps this is what ‘Art’, in all its forms, is for…?

But what kind of ‘Art’ is this, anyway? TS Eliot proclaimed it “tragic farce” – but I believe it to be something so much deeper in its amalgamation of satire, revenge, melodrama, comedy and “the tragedy of a Jew, Who smiles to see how full his bags are crammed…”. Pathos runs hell for leather, hand-in-hand with great wit and plain speaking.

I dislike the improbability and buffoonery of ‘true’ farce: but there is a rationale – as well as a deeply-warped (psychopathic?) persona – driving Barabas’ crescendoing killing frenzy; and the result – as presented here, anyway – is, frankly, bloody funny! For example, introducing himself to his recently-purchased slave (and short-term, savage soulmate: “we are villains both…”), Ithamore (played with real aplomb, and great humour, by Lanre Malaolu, with possibly the best line of the night: “Was ever pot of rice porridge so sauced?”), Barabas paints a cool self-portrait, that, in many other plays, would have you squirming in your seat. Here, though, its inventory of increasing invective, delivered with utter self-possession and matter-of-factness – as if to say “if I wasn’t so flawed, you wouldn’t love me so much (and I don’t give a tinker’s cuss what you think of me, anyway: this is who I am)” – pulls you in so readily, that not only do you also suddenly see no wrong in such a noxious chopping list as he admits to (and is obviously proud of), you chuckle with glee as sin mounts upon sin.

As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights
And kill sick people groaning under walls:
Sometimes I go about and poison wells;
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns;
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ’em go pinioned along by my door.
Being young I studied physic, and began
To practise first upon the Italian;
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells….
But mark how I am blest for plaguing them,
I have as much coin as will buy the town.
But tell me now, how hast thou spent thy time?

What goes around, though, comes around (for both the audience and, eventually, Barabas himself).

…and nothing violent,
Oft have I heard tell, can be permanent.

As a result, even four hundred years later, many of the text’s expressed social attitudes and delineated racial stereotypes are once more to the fore (that is, if they ever really dissipated). However – despite my attempts at forging ironic (yet aggrieved) links to modern statecraft – removed from the context and the mores of late sixteenth-century London, and writ so very large, it is difficult not to be shocked and unsettled by what could easily (simplistically) be read as endorsement of vicious prejudice. (Somehow, the escalating violence – much of it offstage – escapes parallel perspectival judgment.) It is due to the intelligence of both Marlowe’s incisive, intelligible text (oh, that he had lived to a ripe old age…) and the current production that I left the theatre intensely clear that this is not the case: convinced that bigotry of any flavour is poisonous to both despised and despiser. And always has been. Play with fire, and you will end up with more than burning fingers….

Whether the play criticizes, encourages, or simply portrays such intolerance, you may have to decide for yourself… – and, therein, I think, lies its subjective, subversive power. (The RSC’s run at the Swan Theatre ends on 8 September: so you have plenty of time to make your mind up!) Thoroughly entertaining, as well, though: from atheistic, pseudo-Machiavellian start – oh, boy, do I want an RMC T-shirt…

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

…to ironic, devotional, anti-Machiavellian finish…

So march away, and let due praise be given
Neither to fate nor fortune, but to heaven.

If I have one complaint, it is that the play accelerates to this end. Earlier, the pacing – and great use of music (by Jonathan Girling: don’t be surprised if you suddenly become addicted to klezmer…) and stylized, balletic, haka-like fighting – is pitch-perfect (imaginatively directed by Justin Audibert); but we are not given time to contextualize Barabas’ spiral into hell. What we are treated, too, though, is an intelligently-realized stage (designed by Lily Arnold; lit by Oliver Fenwick); and some wonderful acting – not just Britton and Malaolu; but, particularly, Steven Pacey, with great authority as Ferneze; and Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly as (“tonight, I’m going to be”) a pair of meddlesome monks.

No-one lets the side down: although Catrin Stewart, making her RSC debut as Abigail, needs to let her words speak as well as her face and actions – sometimes, methinks the lady doth project just a little bit too much. (She should learn well from Britton: whose voice varies from clear whisper; beautiful, booming baritone – who knew the man could sing so well?! – to dumbfounded falsetto. As the applause resounded, I also detected just a hint of Eric Morecambe’s cheekiness – such is the full-driven gamut of a remarkable performance: that will stay with me for a very long time.) Off to book another viewing…!

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mercury falling…

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
– WH Auden: In Memory of W. B. Yeats

For all sorts of reasons – and in a rush of senses – the past week or so has become intensely dispiriting. So, as is my wont, I dragged my disobedient bulk out through the front door for an amble around ‘my’ village: just as the light was losing its fight against the increasing darkness of night.

Yet, there was no need for streetlamps; and, as I wandered, my torch remained, forgotten, deep in my warm fleece pocket: the deepening blue overhead, looking past Oxhill, towards Stratford, still bearing echoes – as the church clock struck ten – of the slow sunset song of clearing, cleansing skies punctuated by tender, murmuring clouds; and Jupiter, glowing majestically over Whatcote, forming an auspicious procession of gleaming gods, through Venus, to Mercury, gradually slipping behind the horizon, as I returned home; the lusty blusters of the day also waning as the barometer rose.

All sorts of thoughts flickered through my head as my boots pulled me onwards: Messenger, by hazard, crashing and burning – fittingly – by Shakespeare basin – a metaphor, perhaps, for my susceptibilities; or the similar trajectory of government (or at least a large portion of its subjects…)? Even vestiges of Arthur Miller scurrying and scrambling across the thickening canvas of my cares – diamonds, shining in the dark, indeed (but not “rough and hard to the touch”) – all such murmurations gradually withdrawing as the evolving atmosphere enfolded me; and not another soul to be seen – just hints composed of ephemeral shadows cast on comforting curtains: the blue flickers of small screens; or perchance hinting at hidden bookworms.

It is hard, centred in such a situation, not to feel a profound belonging in your bones; cherishing the experience, the scene, the place; thinking the world of it; and finally believing (perhaps) that God really is in His heaven… and all may be right with that world – eventually.

It’s dark there, but full of diamonds.
– Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman

Saturday, 9 May 2015

At democracy’s wake…

Discounting the utter decimation of any political sector and party where people who are not rich and “hardworking” are cared for (or even thought of – except in terms of scrounging idleness): today, I rudely discovered that, in this supposed democracy of ours, any remaining suspicion you may cling to that you have a rôle to play as a member of the electorate is probably a figment of a warped, idealist (and probably therefore socialist) imagination; or can be quashed in a moment by some officious jobsworth, implementing archaic, élitist (and inflexible, invisible or even imaginary) rules (and obviously relishing his sadistic control of the weak and powerless).

Let me explain. Having watched my votes at district and national level count for little, I thought I would go and witness localism in its purest form: i.e. the tallying of votes for our Parish Council, on Saturday, in the company of some of our esteemed contenders. I could then cheer (or boo) in the appropriate places; as well as feel satisfaction that what I see as my electoral duty had been fulfilled and rewarded.

But, as I have often suspected, here in Stratfascist-upon-Avon (sorry), unless you are part of the political establishment, you are not allowed to watch democracy in all its colourful and flawed action. Nor, it turns out, are you allowed to drink the coffee served to you by a kind volunteer (taking pity on a deaf and disabled idiot: who still believes that government is for, of, and by the people). Having committed such a heinous crime (although not yet been chastised for it), I then overstepped the mark by attempting to make a similar beverage for one of our candidates.

Three strikes (I had already had a moan for being denied entry to the count), and I was out on my ear: and, having disrupted the last Parish Council meeting with my emotional pleas, left Levi Fox Hall (part of KES) shouting that “This is not democracy!” with all the suddenly-emerging vehemence of my long-past but active, political, CND-demonstration-attending youth… – putting the ‘mental’ back into ‘governmental’, perhaps…. (At least I wasn’t dragged and kicked by the local constabulary; and then shoved unceremoniously in the back of an unmarked van.)

If supposed democracy (not only the selection of candidates at all levels) is carried out behind closed doors, is it no surprise that so many people do not vote, or register to vote – or even then spoil their ballot papers? (And when you later discover that even one of our now Parish Councillors was treated similarly shoddily at the vote verification on Thursday night, it is hard not to feel that you need the correct-coloured rosette, weird handshake, or to belong to some sort of secretive sect of Tory cronyism, to partake of any portion of power – especially in a town where even the stones, trees and swans bleed blue.)

You can watch the counts (where available) on television; you can even dress up as Elmo, and stand against (and behind) David Cameron in his constituency; but, as a member of the voting proles, you cannot trace your mark from Village Hall to counting hall; your ballot from dropping it in the box to declaration.

Only two-thirds of the electorate voted on Thursday – and it is no surprise. The whole process is flawed: from the lack of proportional representation (PR) to the many governmental processes which take place behind closed doors. I (and my preferred candidate for the PC) had tried our best to establish who could attend the count – but we should not have needed to. Ideally, us hoi polloi could be installed in a public gallery; or allowed to appear (or be corralled) in some form or other – any rules governing (ahem) their attendance made available publicly (or even provided in a leaflet with your ballot card).

The word ‘vote’ stems from the same root as ‘voice’ – but mine was silenced in no uncertain terms today. It seems that, having scrawled your cross (difficult enough for someone like me, with my shaky mitts), you are then supposed to walk away, and place trust in people you would not want to share a planet with (never mind a room).

But this is wrong. As I shouted: “This is not democracy!” If we are to encourage people to exercise their democratic right, fulfil their democratic duty, then the process must also be democratic – from start to finish. Yes, I believe that voting should be compulsory; but how much better would it be (and I accept that any plea made in the spirit of common sense is doomed to failure) if people felt compelled to make their ‘voices’ heard simply through the whole process becoming open, transparent, flexible, and involving?

This is therefore a plea to politicians and civil servants to rectify the dismal experience that the majority of the country has experienced over the last few weeks (unless an SNP supporter, Tory twonk, or Daily Mail-reading gullible fool). Introduce PR. Reduce the voting age to 16. Let everyone experience the excitement that politics can bring: from vote to count to declaration. Don’t just call our system a democracy; make it one. Make every vote count; and make the trade you ply meaningful and believable to everyone.

Breaking news!
Our new Parish Council will consist of the following: Steve Allen, Graham Collier, Beverley Cressman, Stephanie Howells, Malcolm Littlewood, Colin Locke, Keith Risk, and Jacqui Sinclair. Congratulations, thanks, and best wishes to them all!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Now I’ve actually stopped and thunked – and voted…

There is something extremely liberating about voting – especially, as in Tysoe, we can make up to ten of those important marks – and I don’t just mean the act itself (freeing you from any last-minute indecision); or the bracing rain (and now hail) on the walk home (I knew I should have worn my habitual hat); or chatting with friends and neighbours in the (extremely busy) Village Hall – you are, in one short moment, reflecting the hard-fought battles of our ancestors: and are therefore as equal and important as anyone can be with every other member of the electorate.

It doesn’t even matter if the votes you place (especially, here in bluer-than-blue Stratford-upon-Avon) don’t contribute to who gets elected. You have chosen; have registered a preference, your beliefs; and when the final percentages are in, it will be you, and people like you, who have made the difference. A real difference.

Despite all the negative campaigning; the convention of making promises that can’t or won’t be kept; the uncertainty; the likelihood of a hung parliament; the majority right-wing media casting aspersions that don’t make sense (and yet some gullible people are willing to accept at two-faced value); this is such an important day in our political history. It feels like a turning point – one that may lead to us finally having a written constitution; one that may lead to us finally having proportional representation (PR); one that may lead to people finally understanding how important every single vote is – and that not registering; not turning out; is an abnegation of not just duty, but that “hard-fought” heritage: you are not just letting yourself down….

I could say that I don’t care who you vote for: and in some ways that is true. But, of course, in an ideal world, you would vote the same way as I did…! All I would ask, though, is that you do vote, please – with both heart and mind fully engaged – and, if you have the time, before you do so (especially if you believe that voting doesn’t make a damned difference: as my cheeky quoting of Ken Livingstone, yesterday, suggested), also watch this short, but significant, video from Owen Jones. Every vote counts; and we should be grateful that it does; that we are a fundamental part of such democracy. Just remember to wear your hat.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Time to stop and think…

If voting changed anything they’d abolish it

Introduction (and an explanation)
I started writing this in the early hours of Tuesday, 14 April: a few hours after the last Parish Council meeting: and, like a few villagers I know, was intending to sit down and review the latest draft – particularly the proposed ‘policies’ – of the Neighbourhood Plan in detail (for reasons that will become apparent).

But it quickly became obvious that, as it stands, it is too large a document for one person to assimilate; too high a monument for one person to climb – and a Sisyphean one at that: because, if it carries on in its current form – straying from its original purpose; growing like Topsy – it will burst at its seams with increasing numbers of increasingly irrelevant appendices and decrees. Any final vote on its acceptance by Tysoe, therefore, will also be rendered as meaningless as the document itself: as all (or at least the great majority) of the parishioners eligible to approve or reject it will similarly not have been able to readily absorb its contents (much like some of the current political manifestos).

This is not because we are all stupid; neither that we are unwilling, and do not care about our village’s future, or our fellow villagers. It is obvious from many of the events of the last eighteen months that we are lucky to live in a place peopled with fiercely intelligent souls who love where they live; and, given the opportunity, will defend it with great spirit and great thought.

What it does mean, though – as I have suspected for many months (and as evidenced by this blog) – is that the production and implementation of the Plan has lost all the trappings, the raiments, as well as the substance, of democracy. It is not for the people, or of the people. It is merely an exercise in solipsistic bureaucracy: and, therefore, is not worthy – in my opinion – to bear the title it has been given. As I wrote recently to my friend, Duke Senior, discussing the “further consultation” that was described in correspondence at the end of that Parish Council meeting:

It will be intriguing to see… if these meetings create more than a momentary sense of resistance, rather than a joined-up revolution. That is not to say that I don’t think they are useful: they are; and are, of course, what the Neighbourhood Plan steering-wheel-with-a-very-loose-nut group should have done in the first place…. I am starting to feel, though, that the village doesn’t – as a living, breathing, just-getting-on-with-it entity – see the need for its course to be planned or prepared for: they will respond to the prevailing winds as they have always done, tacking silently and apparently passively; slightly resisting the change, but eventually accepting it, without trying to mix too many ruffled water metaphors; and the whole thing is just seen to be an exercise in keeping certain… factions busy whilst doing so.

But it is not up to me to say whether or not we need, or should have, a Neighbourhood Plan (however public my opinions – which is all they are: I do not seek to direct the village, as would some…). It was proposed to the Parish Council; and they accepted it. The Plan’s future is solely in their hands. Therefore, accepting that, at the moment, it exists; and we, as villagers, have been ‘invited’ to provide feedback; what follows are my original (and resulting), somewhat fragmentary, thoughts: prompted by my attempted review; occasionally interspersed with a little bit of context, now that I have failed to accomplish what – even with my past criticisms – I set out to do in good faith, for the sake of our village….

If one meets a powerful person – Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler – one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

14 April 2015
We were told – several times, in fact – at last night’s Parish Council meeting, that, despite the consultation period for the second draft (even though we’re not now supposed to use such numbering) of the Neighbourhood Plan now being closed (or, at least, that’s what I think was said), some members (past or present?) of the steering group currently responsible for it were perturbed (and I’m generalizing a little, here: i.e. my report is not verbatim – for reasons that will have become clear in an earlier post) by the lack of critical feedback on the actual ‘policies’ delineated in the Plan (and which I, for one, still feel have originated out of nowhere: as I cannot find a clear public audit trail leading me back to villagers’ suggestions of, or agreement with, the highly-detailed rules proposed).

Although this described “lack” is not actually true, of course – as I for one have questioned the, to me, ridiculous dependency on ironstone; and the inexcusable ban on windpower, etc.; and the Plan’s own appendices also prove this – I am always happy to try my best (as I always do, of course) to keep fellow residents happy with what I am told are my “lucid words”; and to do what I have been asked (although I have been told that quite a few other villagers also feel that they are being “bullied” into accepting the Plan in its current-bun form: which I empathize with…). So here are a selection of the responses of the Bardic jury. (I do not want to fall into the trap of producing a document that is as over-long and -convoluted as the current Plan draft: thus hiding my opinions in plain sight… – so, like its authors (see below), I am, of course, being highly selective in my choices.)

“In architecture, originality is a crime,” consoled his wife and collaborator, Margaret Macdonald. “Especially to those who can themselves only be copyists.”
– Oliver Wainwright: The Guardian

6 May 2015
But I fell at the first hurdle, of course. I opened up the current draft (and, yes, I actually had a large tumbler of whisky in my hand, to numb the forthcoming pain), and started reading; and soon realized two things: firstly, this was not actually a neighbourhood plan – it was an unstructured compilation of often irrelevant exercises that the authors had felt capable of producing – and, secondly, a lot of it was either unintelligible (and I hope I have proved with my “lucid words” that my command of English is reasonably decent: even though I studied engineering at university…), or relied on a series of obfuscating references, tied up in stacked, serial appendices and ofttimes unfathomable, unfollowable, algorithms and tables – a veritable Gordian knot of confusion.

Withdrawing my metaphorical sword from its sheath, whichever way I sliced the resulting mess (and I tried to do so several times – with decreasing reward – over the intervening weeks), I was left with two overwhelming feelings: insofar as much as this is a plan, it is extremely authoritarian (seemingly wanting us all to live in identical ironstone boxes); and it requires keener steel than mine to both cut through the confusion and excise the unnecessary pap.

Great planning does not mean either “most restrictive” or “most laissez-faire”. It means creating the conditions for growth and change while maintaining a vision of the common good. It balances competing interests. It includes a grasp of the cumulative effect of individual decisions…. It can protect long-term benefits against damage from short-term profit. It has the ability to spot problems before they become crises and find a way to address them. It can review alternative approaches to an issue, such as population growth, and promote the best ones. It has clarity and consistency, so everyone knows where they stand. It has the ability to review the results of its own decisions, and learn from them. It is informed by knowledge, not guesswork. It is the result of genuine and transparent public debate.
– Rowan Moore: The Observer

We want it to meet the needs of the whole community now and into the future.

Foregone conclusions
Of course, if I had wielded the Bardic blade with more success, the results still wouldn’t explain where the Plan’s policies – good, bad, indifferent; prescriptive, proscriptive; intelligible or vague – originated from; or why a document that should be idea- and people-led is being wagged by the originality-threatening tail of process, and deadlines continually stacked like rickety pallets up into the south Warwickshire skies, Jenga-like and ultimately fragile, and increasingly divorced from the village. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Neighbourhood Plan authors made Percy’s statement (when discussing the Village Hall – a much-loved facility they seem keen on demolishing…) their mantra?

From the pain come the dream
From the dream come the vision
From the vision come the people
From the people come the power
From this power come the change

We the People
However, as I mentioned above, it seems that change – however small – is afoot, thankfully, to remedy all this: and that the as-yet-unnamed small groups (I don’t want to use the ‘focus’ word – as that’s not what they are about; in fact they are about the exact opposite – talking about whatever comes to mind, and as widely as possible about the village) are being put together, semi-informally, to chat about any and all aspects of our beloved home. The hope is, that, in freeing people’s minds – after removing the shackles of time and obedience; and unleashing them from procedures, methodologies, algorithms and those foregone conclusions – we can (and will) all discover or even stumble upon the broad seams and nuggets of ideas that we know are out there. (There are probably some buzzing around your head, right now.)

These groups – it is hoped (the first of which was held just after the last Parish Council meeting) – will also unlock the passion for the parish and inspirations for its future development (and I don’t just mean land-based…) that is currently noticeably absent (apart from the odd angry middle-aged man disobeying Parish Council protocol); or even actively being steamrolled – letting that vision at last gush forth unimpeded; and from which all else should spring. (And not the other way around: as is currently the case.)

As even the Government’s own guidance states:

Neighbourhood planning can inspire local people and businesses to consider other ways to improve their neighbourhood than through the development and use of land. They may identify specific action or policies to deliver these improvements. Wider community aspirations than those relating to development and use of land can be included in a neighbourhood plan….

But, as any marketer will tell you: you don’t start big and then work small – so (as I discussed with Duke Senior), why is it only now that these groups are being convened: nearly a year after the first drafts of the village questionnaire were being put together (and which included questions, therefore, that did not stem from the village – but, yet again, from a self-selected, select few; and which, as I have written before, obviously reflected their innate biases)?

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

If we, as residents, do not take and feel ownership; if the Parish Council does not maintain control of the Plan’s development with thorough and rigorous oversight, and a representative love for the place they govern; and if the group that produces it does not listen – and keep striving to listen (even to uncomfortable truths); as well as learning to follow, rather than leading us by our noses – then the resulting document will be a wasted opportunity; a waste of time and effort; and a waste of the paper it is printed on.

In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.

We do not need a shopping list of fields for developers to target. What we need is a Tysoe which develops – as much as it can: as much as any “precious stone set in the silver sea” – in a way that we all recognize and wish for; and which does not lead our children and grandchildren continually to curse us for bequeathing them a village that is sterile through repetitious housing developments; even more isolated than now, because we did not grasp the chance to become subsistent in non-fossil-fuel-based power and motivation; or that has crumbled into a hollow, unrecognizable ghost and an uncomfortable locale to inhabit… because all we cared about was now, was instant gratification, was ourselves.

What we need is a Tysoe which belongs to us all; and where every resident has an important say and a strong hand in how it grows; and where everyone is happy listening to those voices; grateful for their words; and shakes those hands in friendship – joining them together in building a future that everyone believes in.

The power of the people and the power of reason are one.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Attention must be paid…

I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

Returning to see Death of a Salesman, last Friday evening, I was both intrigued to see if the production had evolved in any way, and a little concerned, I suppose, that nothing would actually have changed: that the flaws I had written about previously were still either present or had deepened. To be honest, I don’t know if they were, or had – because, simply by being seated in a different place (originally I had been at the back of the stalls, in the centre; this time, at the front of the circle, stage left), I gained an entirely different perspective: enhanced by being so much closer to the action – although I did feel, somehow, that there was more confidence expressed by the whole company: especially in the rhythm of the performance; the moments of intense, realistic, overlapping dialogue.

We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!

This meant, of course (along with having the captions directly in front of me – which, I have to say, with actors of the calibre of Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, were mostly unnecessary), that facial expressions were much more apparent: and, if I left the RSC with any solid evidence of that evolution I sought, it was that Walter provided a masterclass in understated but perfectly nuanced emotion from beginning to end – the perfect foil to Sher’s agonized raging, injured bull. I felt immensely privileged to witness such subtlety (and was also immensely affected by it…).

Forgive me, dear, I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you.

This, though, introduces another problem with the production (transferring for a longer run – boo, hiss – at the Noel Coward Theatre, London): in that most of the interaction between Willy and Linda takes place in the family home – and, with, I felt, this time, increased intimacy; more frequent shared moments of obvious love between the two – and yet, this part of the set is hunkered back almost under the old proscenium arch: too far away, perhaps, from much of the audience. I therefore wondered – although accepting that revenues would have been eroded by the smaller audiences (and yet we could have been offered that “longer run”, here in Stratford, of course…) – if the production should have been put on in the Swan Theatre, instead?

The way they boxed us in here. Bricks and windows, windows and bricks.

Despite its lack of comfort(s), I much prefer the Swan’s atmosphere, its acoustics, and its own inherent “intimacy”; and perhaps condensing the space for performance would lead to the increasing claustrophobia of Willy’s situation, his life, his house – “there’s more of him in that front stoop than in all the sales he made” – becoming more apparent? (As I stated before, I have no problem at all with other playwrights than Shakespeare being performed in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre: but Death of a Salesman could almost be chamber drama.)

A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

Over four days on – probably helped by Antony Sher’s immersive reading of his Falstaff diary, Year of the Fat Knight on Radio 4: when you suddenly realize that, whenever he is on stage, you never ever hear his ‘natural’ voice, such a great “character actor” is he… – there are certain lines which still ring in my ears; still bring me out in goose bumps (I was so tempted to use the word ‘horripilation’ – somehow it seems more apposite…). I therefore feel slightly short-changed by the move to London. But, I suppose (although the RSC risks being rechristened the “Royal Sher-speare Company”), we do have King Lear to look forward to, next year – although I will always compare any performance to Greg Hicks’ startling inhabitation of the rôle (with Kathryn Hunter’s similarly extraordinary Fool) in (what I still think of as) The Other Place, a few years ago.

Like a young god. Hercules – something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out – Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he’ll be great yet. A star like that, magnificent, can never really fade away!