Thursday, 23 July 2015

Who closed down the Community Centre?

DieHard Gateshead
Written by Ruth Raynor; Directed by Neil Armstrong
Caedmon’s Hall, Gateshead Library
Thursday 16th July 2015


It wasn’t quite Byker Grove meets Brecht, but while that is a pleasing notion for the noggin, this was tangibly necessary: a humane, subtle drama about austerity and its impact on community. Not placard-waving, confrontational agit-prop but a demonstration of what our people are like; this is who you are trying to do down and what you are trying to take away, Mr Osborne.

There is a place for political theatre, and the time is surely now. We’re faced with an arrogant government, on a low-turnout 37% vote-share ‘mandate’, that looks to further curb trade unionism, cut back legal aid, turn education into solely a financial transaction, close libraries and open up the countryside to the moot practice of fracking. An administration that is seriously considering making people save up for their own sick pay. 

Raynor has spoken of being inspired by the writing of the likes of Alan Plater and Tom Hadaway; the influence shows; something of the jovial, egalitarian spirit of Plater is transposed to the inexorable treadmill of austerity Britain in 2015. She sets the piece in a Gateshead Community Centre, which has just about kept going through already harsh financial ‘economies’ in previous years.

The Gateshead parliamentary seat has the 92nd highest unemployment rate in Britain (5.9%) and the 26th highest seat with constituents who are in very bad health: 2.07% 34.45% live in social housing – also 26th highest out of 600+ constituencies. 30.47% of people have no qualifications. 22.55% of people hold no passport. While UKIP did well here in the last General Election, finishing second with 17.8% of the vote, this was considerably less well than in Tory seats in Essex and Kent or coastal north east constituencies such as Blyth Valley and Hartlepool. Only just over one in ten of the 'Heed' electorate voted UKIP. This play does not engage in the media habit of assuming that this vocal minority therefore demonstrates that the people of Gateshead have a resentful, insular mind-set.  

Raynor has commented that her play ‘was built with the kindness of a Tyneside women’s group. Participants took part in a range of workshops and interviews and gave feedback on two drafts of the script. Because of cuts and changes to the terms of funding the group is no longer running.’ 

There is a complex dissolving of hierarchies within the Centre's women’s group, which is not homogeneously this or that (working-class, middle-class, underclass), but is carefully pitched and realistic to the locale. The older community centre worker Lesley, with her beliefs in Noel Edmonds – false-consciousness subtly and funnily highlighted – and the feint but palpable class memory coming out in Sandra when she talks about the ‘New’ Jarrow March and its Facebook group. The strong women of this play - chiefly Lesley and Sandra - mirror Heather Wood of Easington Action Group, who I saw speak forcefully and eloquently of practical community campaigning at the recent Durham Moot event.

Lesley (Judi Earl) is the convenor of the group, unpretentious and grounded, yet with odd ideas about self-help. Katie (Christina Berriman Dawson) is morose, glowering and reluctant mother of six, but who grows into the action and with the group. Sandra (Jessica Johnson) is the most forthright and belligerent, with a rough way with words, and who is incredibly articulate. Julia (Arabella Arnott) seems like she'll be an overly stereotypical materialistic middle-class lass, but isn't quite so clear-cut. Rosie (Zoe Lambert) is the theatre project leader, idealistic and driven, if less worldly than she might think. The cast is uniformly excellent, able to veer seamlessly between gags and pathos.

The play mixes and contrasts high and low cultural references – the ancient Greek Orpheus myth with Die Hard and Crinkly Bottom. This is necessary to take the audience with the action, and weave in the political ideas. What does this say to me about my life? You feel that Raynor is pondering and addressing this question for a wide range of local audiences – the play was also staged at Newcastle’s Alphabetti and the Washington Arts Centre. Music is shrewdly used: from a looped intro from recent-ish pop that I cannot place, to two Crowded House tracks, including the apt melancholy of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ to close. 

She also astutely includes a mixed lexical register of “shite”, “asset management” and “wifey” and the ace wordplay of “Start Arts”. As well as posing the comical interrogative: ‘Remember Blobbyland?’ There is some sense of language being contested, while the financial parameters are set from Westminster.

Ruth Raynor’s play is more Mhairi Black than Liz Kendall. It is controlled, funny and tender and yes, it is angry. There is class consciousness and compassion for disparate people. We need this sort of thing on telly, and a better BBC to produce many new and proudly low-budget single plays in place of high-cost adaptations and costume serials.

In post-Chavs era, we should have seen the back of grotesquely stereotypical representations of the working or under-classes. I don’t think we have. Nor does Raynor, who knows that current snobbery is the path to decay; she doesn’t just see the best in people, but sees that drawing lazy or prejudicial distinctions is not the way to live your life. The play carefully displays human differences and foibles, but implies that only in acting together – metaphorically and literally – can we laugh and connect, or indeed achieve anything of lasting worth.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Edinburgh 2014: in the present age, they take sarcastic minutes...

So, Edinburgh, 2014: four nights, five days, twenty-five shows, shared with a friend who was a Fringe neophyte. There was unwise traipsing around on an inevitable rainy day. There was wise staying-put around the venues with free shows. There was a geographically handy B&B with a helpful proprietor. There was some planning - but not too much! There was inadvertent incongruity in hearing, but not seeing comedy from a 'have-a-go' Geordie comic in an Open Mic night at a random bar. His 'so-so' routines were played through the PA and speakers right by our table, which was in a completely different part of the bar to the performance. His thing was a vaguely Viz-esque quoting of working-men's club 'non-working' regulars and the older north-east generation: 'Me granda said: "they ran onta tha field like a pack o' gays!"' Which was weird without seeing facial expressions and further de-contextualized by our missing the first part of the gag! If it was a gag.

The Edinburgh Festival is a sixty-odd year institution with the emphasis on odd. At least its oddity will reveal itself, if you let it.

Such an expedition has to include some familiar figures, venues and personal institutions. So it was that we took in Richard Herring: Lord of the Dance Settee (Assembly Square, Sunday 10/08/14). A good, if much more ragbag show than his previous ones I've seen that touched on sex, death and the male member. He had an amusing teenage holiday story, a right-on demolition of those on Twitter who oppose International Women's Day and told of odd goings on in a wood (a disturbing doll placed in a rustic window, looking out at passers by!). All pretty good; a mix of the serious and utterly silly - yet the Sunday night audience's spirit seemed quelled - either by that day's torrential weather or by sheer lack of humour! Quite saddening to witness, really, as it had the sort of amateur charm and sense of arcane absurdity alien to the bland McIntyre-and-assorted-Russells school of comedy. 

"We have freedom of speech. We should have freedom of thought..."

Then there was Simon Munnery Sings Søren Kierkegaard (The Stand, Saturday 09/08/14). Munnery has, in many ways, got me 'into' stand-up. I'd liked Bill Hicks - who didn't, 
who was at university from 2001-4 and who had anything approaching a counter-cultural mindset? But most of the comedy I'd loved was on the box - Chris Morris, Alan Partridge, Steptoe, Fawlty etc., plus a late-night BBC-2 dose of absurdism called Attention, Scum! This 2001 series was where I first encountered Munnery; I went to my first Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 - if just a day trip, featuring his show at The Stand, which involved improvised routines based on the audience's suggestions placed on a rock by the stage. It was another five years before I actually made a fuller Fringe pilgrimage. In 2012, I 'saw' - or was involved in - the immersive La Concepta: perhaps the funniest live comedy I've yet experienced, where Munnery attended to an audience of 12 'diners' in a surreal virtual restaurant. Since then, he'd done variants on his winning Fylm template - which I'd seen both in Edinburgh in 2013 and in Newcastle twice (most recently, 08/04/14).

This new show on Kierkegaard - its title referring to Arthur Smith's Leonard Cohen themed show, which my parents saw last year in Edinburgh - was more autobiographical and political than usual; Munnery will never deliver the expected and repeat himself. This involved not just a thoughtful attempt to derive comedy from the dour Danish Christian philosopher Kierkegaard's words, but a dissection of Munnery's university experience at Trinity College, Cambridge and the class implications of The Jam's 'The Eton Rifles'.

Compared with my last two Fringes, I saw relatively little theatre. Altamont (C Nova, Monday 11/08/2014) was an impressive one-man show - with John Stenhouse telling the story and enacting the characters connected with that disastrous venture. The amorality and shoddy organisation of the event seems to symbolise the limits of what rock 'n' roll could achieve. Could an emancipatory movement be forged with the participation of violent hell's angels or the market-liberal figurehead Jagger? Stenhouse conveyed chaos and crushed dreams in a well-paced, impressionistic show.


Jessica Spray's I Need a Doctor! The Whosical (Pleasance Above, Sunday 10/08/14) was a very affable mainstream musical take on the great British institution of Doctor Who. Perhaps overplaying the postmodernist card - repeated references to avoiding copyright-infringing use of 'iconic' DW names - yet with a sense of knockabout timing that beguiled. You entered to the strains of the Timelords' 'Doctorin' the TARDIS'. The audience consisted - oh that cliché! - of all ages and the show was enjoyed. Spray was a clever, sassy, spectacled companion - far preferable to Clara. There were some witty lines for different sections of the audience - a hard one to be able to please, potentially. It did get me thinking of how I could write a more eccentric, out-there musical on the same theme ('Corridors and Air Ducts'? 'Sweet Skarasen', anyone?), but then such a venture wouldn't be a large crowd-pleaser like this was.

The more niche DW related show was Richard Tyrone Jones: Crap Time Lord (Pilgrim, Tuesday 12/08/14); Jones, a self-styled 'ginger Nigel Havers of the spoken word scene'. We were late to this, due to an overlap with the previous spoken word show at the Labyrinth, so instead of interrupting, sat in the bar listening to the show - which was behind a curtain. RTJ (sorry, it's a Doctor Who thing!) most pointedly does need a Doctor, and his erudite, absurd show explored his health issues through the DW lens. A hospital's heart monitor screaming in time like Bonnie Langford. A frame of exophoric reference that takes in W.H. Auden, Catullus, Lovejoy, Thaksin Shinawatra and coming "back to my TARDIS, to see my Terry Nation". Wonderful mix of euphemisms and bathos; I must actually see his full show - and not just what was an in-effect audio version...

He made the best reference to the nature of the Free Fringe: "Don't put any coppers in... As when they hit the bucket they sound like a Cyberman's tears."

Free shows included John Kearns' Shtick (Voodoo Lounge, Friday 08/08/14). Kearns, in gormless headpiece and teeth get-up, was affectingly melancholy and rambling. He had a great way of debunking frozen register language: "I think I'll be found dead..." His central story about the old couple in the pub was touching and sad and spoke of habit, ritual and aggravating banality. There is deadpan darkness in attempting to lead an audience in a singalong of Sting's 'Fields of Gold'.

Immediately following this show was John-Luke Roberts: Stnad-Up (Voodoo Rooms, Friday 08/08/14), a Newcastle Upon Tyne-born comedian with some stock gimmicks that, in defiance of explanation, just work: reeled-off insults addressed to the front few rows of the audience (mine was "You're Mork and Mindy, without Mork, without Mindy... and with you as a COCK!") and inventive, bizarre appropriation of twenty-first century standards such as 'Somebody That I Used to Know' and 'Hurt'. It was a show concerning the break-up with his long-time girlfriend, and was winningly melancholy and deranged.

Trevor Lock: Special Mouth Noises (Bannerman's, Tuesday 12/08/14) was impressive, a smaller-scale Stewart Lee-type deconstruction of 'comedy' and, primarily, 'the show'. This improvisational show was constructed from the audience's foibles rather than gags; we were in a small room in Bannerman's pub and laughs arose from how people acted in the claustrophobic setting, as well as Lock's handling of the audience - two people were assigned to take minutes and he took a 'register'. Lock was very observant but not in the smugly observational sense. Constructed rituals, inability to follow instructions, the slants and interpretations we place on things. It was somehow thoughtful and unaccountably funny. With no more than one straightforward 'joke' for the fifty plus minutes of the performance.

Dave Nelder's show Scotland's Referend...uhm? (Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, Monday 11/08/14) was a lightly enjoyable morning show. Not uproariously funny, but since when is comedy just about laugh count? Nelder is a self-styled Gladstonian liberal - isn't Scotland unique in its ability to generate such political affiliations? His other evening show was based on Voltaire's Candide, which we couldn't quite fit in. He had an excellent gag about reintroducing the Merk, Scotland's pre-Union currency, inaugurated around 600AD - which paid off in reference to German economic aid... Staunch feminist and humanist Kate Smurthwaite's The Evolution will Be Televised (Ciao Roma, Monday 11/08/14) was similar in effect, with a larger audience, seemingly comprised of scientific boffins with more knowledge in the noggin than I have on matters Darwinian.

The very last show we saw was Andrew Watts' Feminism for Chaps (Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, Tuesday 12/08/14). Watts resembled a forty-something Jonathan Meades: suit and tie, distinctly RP tones. He was somewhat less acerbic, but pretty much as intelligent as that great TV fusionist of the lecture hall and the music hall. His 'chaps' guide' to feminism deftly educated on the variety of divergent feminisms and indulged in a sense of the absurd and numerous cricket metaphors. The juxtaposition of his patrician, gentlemanly style with the content made for an enjoyably fresh and thoughtful perspective on the subject. Observations of how men are treated in maternity wards mingled with discussions of feminist porn. A wonderful scene was conjured of Watts on a Feminist march in London, being photographed 'cringing' while Kate Smurthwaite was shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT!?" into a megaphone just behind him and there was the most brilliant story to invoke Penfold from Danger Mouse I'd heard all Fringe.

Another PBH Free Fringe show was Pornography and Heartbreak from American slam poet David Lee Morgan (Banshee Labyrinth, Sunday 10/08/14). This explored the sexual psyche - and all the darker irrationality entailed. I'd seen Morgan in 2013, with a much 'lighter' show that distilled his beat-influenced communism. This was intense and compelling; not all shows have to be easily accessible and such truth-telling isn't always going to 'please'. Nor should it.

We frequented the spoken word-specialist part of the Banshee Labyrinth: the 'Banqueting Hall', an excellent little room that is anything but its name - its many free shows are both economical and mind-expanding. You can try out free comedy and spoken word shows with no upfront cost and then pay a fiver or so if it is enjoyed. One we actually wandered into by mistake, looking for Chris Boyd's Ben Target-directed show: 300 to 1 (Banshee Labyrinth, Sunday 10/08/14). This featured poet Matt Panesh playing a teenage boy in his bedroom performing the action film absurdity 300 - while watched by the ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. A properly odd Fringe show, with Panesh an imposing physical performer, in a show that emitted wisdom as the Edinburgh skies were about to emit great quantities of certain other stuff that day...

On our last day, we had been looking to see The Philosorap Cabaret, but that wasn't on, so we just moved rooms in the BL and saw a compilation show of spoken-word; all really engaging, ranging from onomatopoeiac travel pieces to reflections on Buddhism to words from the Mancunian Zach Roddis, with his inventories of mundane, banal details and assaults on facile cultural clichés:

Grave Invaders (Banshee Labyrinth, Friday 08/08/14) was a 'slam poetry' performance, consisting of three poets with differing yet dovetailing styles: Mark Grist, MC Mixy and Tim Clare. It was loosely based on the premise of a road trip visiting the graves of dead poets, but largely was a showcase for their styles and flow; a mix of the acerbic, bawdy, heartfelt and debunking. There were some excellent puns. There were also deft parodies.

Clare's 'Portishead' assailed not the excellent band but the limited, Tory mindset of the south western town in which he was born in 1981. Grist had a humanist, illusion-less poem about the 'perfect marriage'. The show ended with an agreeably silly 'poets' death match', with the three dressed as a winged man-bee type thing, a 'space unicorn' and a hapless maths teacher.

Shows not enjoyed? Pointless to dwell at much length, but our first was a very mild stand-up show in the Sportsters bar that at least didn't last over half an hour. I didn't take to the storytelling show in the Banshee Labyrinth, Rebranding Beelzebub; just not imposing or original enough. Will be enjoyed by those literally into anything Gothic, but I found the tales and the delivery monotonous; inexorable in the wrong sense. I had perhaps hoped for something surreal and weird in Shakespeare's Avengers Assembleth (Greenside Royal Terrace, Saturday 09/08/14), but it was merely predictable am-dram panto. Some of the actors were broad, others were frothing at the mouth ham-dram. I'm not 'AVING A GO really, as there are far more deserving candidates for vitriol among the most popular comedians. SAA was fundamentally harmless - provided it isn't the only sort of theatre the audience ever thinks to see. 

Nothing I saw this year was anywhere near as bad as a non-PBH Free Fringe free show of two years ago, with several comics on the bill 'essaying' a rancid, outmoded strain of humour - aggression, misogyny, homophobia; irony less (not that that's a way-out, Mr Carr & Co.). 

I don't like gongs, baubles and awards for the arts... Yet, here's an exclusive 'TOP FIVE SHOWS OF THE EDINBURGH FRINGE 2014'!

5: Hooray for Ben Target! (Banshee Labyrinth, Saturday 09/08/14)

"Hey, easy, asbestos fingers!"

I saw Ben Target (pronounced 'TAR-ZHAY')'s last Fringe show in 2012, which was a revelation to me in how it played with conventions and barriers between audience and performer. And, in its sheer hilarious, unhinged absurdity. This was almost as good, and similarly Dadaist in its free-form splicing of different registers and comedic styles. He presented a fictitious (?) slideshow about his ancestors and grandfather. He had the whole audience assist in making a virtual 'cake'. He had us jumping to the strains of Van Halen in tribute to the 'death' of the band's bassist. Later, Target instructed us to throw our right shoes at him, while he was standing in front of an archery target. Then he produced a riot shield to fend off the flying footwear and finally collated the shoes in a bag and walked off.

4: Free Gaza (Gilded Balloon, Tuesday 12/08/14)

"I thought it was something about a footballer..."

Edinburgh in August can be an education in politics, humour and inform your cultural capital - or sense of yourself, who you are and what you like. Your habitus, in Pierre Bourdieu's terms. Edinburgh might give the discerning 'left-liberal' personality a sense that a lot more is possible, politically and culturally, than might seem to be the case in non-Fringe everyday life.

This was a heartening show; arranged at short notice by the Jewish Socialists' Group and with probably the largest crowd of the 25 shows we saw. All four comedians on the bill had different styles, yet it converged into conveying a humanist message. The Peace Bloc in Israel was alluded to. Money was collected at the end. Josie Long was sparky and charming. Andy Zaltzman was pointed and irreverent and unafraid to be arcane: "You've come a long way for a Graham Gooch". He was just the right side of mainstream. Chris Coltrane, who oddly resembled a work colleague of mine, was a righteous, bald-headed, left-wing activist comedian. He mined the absurdity of how police deal with demos against UK Uncut, and spoke from personal experience.

Then, for Daniel Kitson. A seemingly effortless stand-up style; bantering but with an underlying intellect and comic judiciousness. Like a more rapid fire Trevor Lock, he made comedy from his interactions with the audience and produced a rich humour from the deliberately avoiding mention of the political reason we were here. This was a sort of demonstration of what it is about to be human: not monolithically fixated, but interacting. Trying things out. Improvising. All the better to respond to complex situations - such as Gaza is.

There was even a Leith pun, relating to the decline of their Docks.

3: A Slight Ache (Pleasance That, Monday 11/08/14)

"You could call the police and have him removed. You could say that he's a public nuisance. Although I can't say I find him a public nuisance..."

Tremendous to see Pinter staged, and played with such vigour and understanding. I've seen his work staged just once in Newcastle at the Gulbenkian (now Northern Stage) in 2001: those not living in London don't often get the chance to see the Hackney playwright's comedies of menace. This is an intriguing radio play - staged as a wonderfully absurd sexual power struggle and satire of middle-class pretensions. What it loses in utter bizarre ambiguity, it gains in humour, with Munnery's corporeal presence and inscrutable gaze as the balaclavaed 'match-seller'. Catriona Knox is Vivien Merchant-esque in suggesting reserves of strength and sensuality beneath Flora's seeming primness and Thom Tuck is a megalithically pompous Edward. I had recently watched the 1970s TV version of No Man's Land, and this is similarly evocative in its writing: cricket as perennial exophoric reference, language as chief tool for human dueling. It increasingly strikes me that Pinter is equally and subtly concerned with politics, language and anthropology and shows their inter-relations within a contested culture. 

Edward's speech about surveying the local land with a telescope suggests the desire for 'mastery', 'ownership' and the 'rational'. So much else suggests a focus on physical territory and the human concept of property: so embedded in British culture, law and politics since John Locke. Wonderful stuff this play, and I haven't even got to the 'Barnabus' scene!

2: Lippy (Traverse, Saturday 10/08/14)

"It takes more than rooms and chairs to make a home..."

My favourite theatre show of 2012 was the participatory and political piece about the Covent Garden Old Price Riots of 1809: Kemble's Riot. In 2013, it was was the inventive, physical and auditory spectacle of The Secret Agent, incisively adapting Joseph Conrad.

This year, I'd tried to book for several things at the Traverse - but too late, and with no luck. Other than this Dead Centre production, which was directed by Ben Kidd - who I later realised was behind Headlong's excellent production of Spring Awakening, which I had seen at Northern Stage earlier this year (and mentioned towards the end of my last piece here).

Like Spring Awakening and the work of Dennis Potter and David Lynch, there was an enveloping use of music: as something which beguiles and haunts, in equal measure. The end-section - with its Joycean dialogue emitted from a Beckettian mouth - was somewhat too conventionally modernist, in contrast with the rest of the play. It opens with a funny 'post-show discussion' that circuitously and deftly introduces the play's themes of lip-reading and the incommunicable. Then it shifts into 'depicting' the unimaginable circumstances surrounding four Irish women's decision to starve themselves to death, barricaded in their Leixlip home and erasing all traces of their identities. This was a news-story from 2000 - and the play makes clear the difficulties associated with finding meaning in such an act with limited 'evidence' on hand. 

There is barely any discernible dialogue, for the most part. And that is vital.

This experimental production will necessarily divide critics and spectators: isn't that rather better than bland consensus? I certainly prefer theatre to challenge ideas of life and the world and make use of unusual staging techniques and, most of all, sound, in order to do that. Rather than be some pleasant 'pastime' viewed from behind the proscenium arch and thoroughly compartmentalized. The place 'to be' to keep up social appearances? Or a place to shape your world? Is it merely all about nice dialogue and 'life-like' acting? Or stage craft to fashion 'fantasies' or expose 'realities'?

Gilbert Adair's piece on Tom Stoppard's play Travesties (1974) in Myths and Memories comes to mind. As does the thought of such productions from before my birth as the Theatre Workshop's Uranium 235 (1946) and David Edgar's Destiny (1976).

This production troubled me and made me think, and was brave enough to offer no answers or definitive, didactic interpretation of the Mulrooneys' hauntingly inconclusive story.

1: Nathan Penlington - Choose Your Own Documentary (Gilded Balloon, Monday 11/08/2014)

I won't say too much on this, other than the imperative: go and see it. This has deep pathos and is uplifting like you wouldn't think possible. It demonstrates the need for fictions, myths and stories as well as Jonathan Gottschall or Joseph Campbell. It is innovative and interactive, in a way deeply relevant to the heart of the show. And, yes, there is the heart that we need.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

"He believes in a beauty": music and life, mid-2014

'From the Tyne to where to the Thames does flow
My English brothers and sisters know
It's not a case of where you go
It's race and creed and colour.
From the police cell to the deep dark grave
On the underground's just a stop away
Don't be too black, don't be too gay
Just get a little duller.'
1: AZTEC CAMERA - 'Good Morning Britain' (1990)

'Birds' is serene, celestially jaded 1993. It can't get more of the minute in post-2014 European Election Britain than 'Good Morning Britain'.

In other ways, 1990 seems utterly unreachable: 'World in Motion'. 'Killer'. Sentiments: 
'A uniform's a traitor 
Love's international'
2014: pointing fingers to exercise influential power.

2: Lord KITCHENER - 'London is the Place for Me' (1950)

The UK media peddled many facile myths about the 2014 local and European Elections; one was that London voted drastically differently to the rest of the country: London as open, multicultural, defiantly anti-UKIP. Yet they did better in outer London suburbs than in the northern cities. No council seats in Manchester, Sunderland, Durham, York, Newcastle, Liverpool. Take that, 'earthquake' inciters! But, Sheffield: be ashamed o' yessels!

Lord Kitchener isn't in the business of smugness or self-congratulation. This is music here that evokes all the best in humanity, not portentous predictions involving foam.

3: Damon ALBARN - 'Lonely Press Play' (2014)

You get the sense that Albarn would not be oblivious to the sentiment in 'London is the Place for Me'. Is there anyone else in blighty who writes better melancholy slow ones?

4: Karen GWYER - 'Lay Claim to My Grub' (2014)

This music envelops, branches out. It advances on the Wolfgang Voigt model. Not all music has to have these lexemes... 

'I close my eyes and dream about changing'
5: Sally SELTMANN - 'Dream about Changing' (2010)

Can we craft a world in which this is the popular music? Avalanches meet Feist, in several senses.

6: COMMON - 'Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World)' (2000)

More 2014 music of the ilk of Nas. OutKast. Common. Please!

'My verse depth, is that of a baby's first step 
Or the old lady who died and the nurse wept'
7: LEGENDARY PINK DOTS - 'Pendulum' (2013)
'Your honesty is a saber tongued assassin in a loud checkered suit. 
A tap dancing killer on a grave, ranting about truth. Although, the funeral party left long ago. There is no place for small (mouses?) in your sterilized universe. 
It's black, white, and very red, where the blood of liars runs in roman ditches. Lined up, hands tied, no bullet is wasted when it comes to the truth. 
It's close range. A 1000 millimenter stare to the hole in your skull. No blindfold.

No u-turns. Truth runs in straight lines. There is no view from the window. 
But it's your truth… it's drawn with a stick in the sand, as the desert wind rages, and covers your hands. Blameless once more, in the end, just a man... Just a man like me.'
This formed the opening to one of the most imposing, beguiling live performances I've ever seen, 2014 or any year. Star and Shadow Cinema (where else?), Friday 11th April 2014. There's a recording of a gig with basically the same set here

8: HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT - 'Even Men With Steel Hearts' (1995)

Our witty, humane music of the 1990s, that doesn't elicit broadsheet panegyrics and seasons on BBC 6 Music. Nigel Blackwell uses words like 'augurs' and his language has a range of communication that is peerless.
'Even men with steel hearts love to see a dog on the pitch 
Even men with steel hearts love to see a dog on the pitch 
It generates a warmth around the ground that augurs well for mankind 
And that’s what life’s about'

'As the replay comes on, the commentator draws our attention to a retriever standing inside the goal, next to the post. Fortunately for the referee, it was human, rather than animal, intervention which prevented the goal. Something interesting then happens as the commentator asks ‘Do you like me sometimes wonder why on earth people sometimes bring a fine-looking dog like that to a ground like this?’ and claims that ‘the fans just want him away’. The fans, actually, are palpably overjoyed about the dog, despite the fact that the home team have just been denied a goal. HMHB were absolutely right: if there is one way of finally settling the epistemological dispute about who are ‘real’ football fans and who are not, just put a dog on the pitch.' (Joe Kennedy, Straight off the Beach, 19/05/2014)
9: Björk - 'Venus to a Boy' (1993)

To pub quizzes at the Carriage by Jesmond metro station.

To songs, heard by chance, that won't let go.

To opening lines that aren't typical opening lines, that don't apologize for being opening lines:
'his wicked sense of humour 
suggests exciting sex'
10: DISCLOSURE (ft. Eliza DOOLITTLE) - 'You and Me (Flume Remix)' (2013)
'So please don’t let go, cause you know exactly what we found 
So please don’t let go my darling 
You keep me locked up underground 
It’s gonna be you and me 
It’s gonna be everything you’ve ever dreamed 
It’s gonna be who and me 
It’s gonna be everything and everything, we’re meant to be'

Rites of spring. Rites of passage. 1906. 2014.

I wasn't alone in finding Northern Stage's version of Wedekind's controversial old German play a gripping experience. Impossibly affecting usage of this remix within its story...

Don't those lyrics almost evoke Al Bowlly? Thoughts of Pennies from Heaven following the sad passing of Bob Hoskins. The unobtainable dreams that popular song, banal-sublime, can give wing to. Like moonlight on a highway, this remix transforms 'You and Me' into something that transports. Most purposeful 'strings' on a pop song since 'ill Manors'.

There's an opening narration to the play - from unseen speaker over the PA - which evokes the mottled art gallery preciousness we all know so well. Vecchio's Venus is described amid a distancing aestheticism. Then, the curtain rises to reveal a man, sat at a seat and he is doing what we think he is doing... that wouldn't be seen in a heritage production where what stays behind the proscenium arch is always going to stay behind there and not engage on a visceral  or intellectual level. 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Film #3: What's Up Superdoc! (1978)

'Lest we forget, the Seventies was a decade in which people bought salted pub-nuts in the hope that the landlord might pull the staple on the bag that would reveal a small square patch of Page Three stocking-top; in which millions of satisfied viewers watched speeded-up footage of Benny Hill chasing models around a car park; in which cinemagoers made Come Play With Me Britain's longest- running and most profitable domestic movie - a record it still retains. Whether you consider them evidence of depressing ideological backwardness or a refreshing absence of modern prudery, these phenomena are just as much part of the fabric of the period as Arctic Roll, Anthea Redfern and Hector, Kiki and Zaza.'
- Matthew Sweet (The Independent on Sunday, 16/05/2004) 

In this film, which opened on 21st March 1978, there are mildly grainy shots of 1970s London locations and we hear hazy disco era music in the background. A Financial Times article in April 1981 revealed that What's Up Superdoc! along with the likes of Erotic Inferno, Boobs and Diary of a Space Virgin, had received subsidy from the state-backed British Film Fund, the so-called Eady Levy. This sex-comedy tendency was the flipside of such obscure, challenging late-1970s British films as The Shout, Radio On and Jubilee. By and large, it was the Great British Sex Comedy which kept actors and film crews gainfully employed as the 1970s progressed.

I watched this, curious to see Beth Porter in another role after her central performance as Kitty Schreiber in the stupendous Rock Follies of '77. Unfortunately, What's Up Superdoc! is the anti-Rock Follies. Its writer-director Derek Ford's dialogue is thunderously inane, where Howard Schuman's is finessed and punchy.

Here is an all too liberal sampling of Ford's wit:

"Not 'arf!"
"Maybe it's on the National Health..."
"Like a bull in a china shop..."
"That word! [...] That could even give Mary Whitehouse a baby!"
"They didn't tell me he was a WANKER!"
"Bloody women..."

Christopher Mitchell's titular 'Superdoc' - Dr Robert Todd - is entirely without social context. He is a moustache and eyebrow twitching atom in a world of cardboard amorousness. He is the male 'hero' who indulges in the usual wish-fulfillment fantasies and is every bit as annoying as Robin Askwith and a good deal smugger.

Obligatory Soho strip club scene alert
What must Harry H. Corbett have been thinking when he was making this film? He plays Goodwin, a gormless, gurning ex-army caricature with occasional sad echoes of Harold Steptoe's vocal mannerisms. There is a scene in a public park where he is floored by a little kid's punch and a drenched Mitchell laughs at him, stood in a pond.

Corbett ponders the Faustian pact of being in this film
Just when you think it can't get any worse, Hughie Green enters: playing the 'humorously' named 'Bob Scatchitt'. Playing himself basically: a mountainous TV presenter and staunch British patriot with a mid-Atlantic accent (he had spent four years in Canada in his early life).

Green's massively popular talent show Opportunity Knocks had been axed in the same month this film premiered in the UK, following his regular use of the programme as a bully pulpit for his right-wing views. An open supporter of Thatcher's Tories, he had performed his reactionary monologue 'Stand Up and Be Counted' on the show in December 1976, railing against the unions, the Labour government and various shirkers. It was Thames' Head of Light Entertainment Philip Jones who sacked him and went onto commission the excellent Shelley (1979-92): a double blow for enlightenment in British television.

In July 1978, Green was booked by the peelers for drink driving. A year later, he was telling the Daily Express: "The Reds aren't under the beds. They're right in there, running the programmes [...] Evil people are putting out anti-British propaganda." (25/07/1979)

Green had complained that TV was being deluged with filth; he clearly cared so genuinely that he decided to appear in this irrefutably moral caper! And I assure you, he doesn't use the word 'wanker' three times...

The film is a deeply unedifying spectacle. We get the most gobsmackingly crass, inapt reference to Jimmy Cagney in White Heat ever committed to film; we get the apter fact that some filming was done at the troubled British Leyland Motors. We even get a Bill Pertwee cameo, with the Dad's Army actor essaying an appalling American accent. It lacks even the down-at-heel bathetic appeal that Matthew Sweet just about discerns in the most successful film of this peculiarly British genre:
Once the lights had gone down on Come Play with Me (1977), for instance, those punters who had slavered over the ads which promised "10 girls being screwed by 10 guys at the same time culminating with a group of Hell's Angels coming to an orgy party," found themselves watching Alfie Bass capering about in long-johns, bowler hat and Hitler moustache, droning his way through a weak music hall number; Irene Handl, mumbling her way through a script upon which she has only the slightest of grips; and production values so low that when Henry McGee dries up and looks into the camera for help, the shot stays in the picture. 
It is just dully preposterous bunkum: watching it is like being forced to inhabit the psyche of UKIP idiot Godfrey Bloom for ninety minutes.

The one element that momentarily beguiles is the library music-style soundtrack; lounge disco with copious guitar and those late-70s synths. It isn't Moroder or Dee D. Jackson: see a piece on neglected 1970s music that David Lichfield and I put together here. The music is proficient and curiously sedated - like those honed, becalmed recordings you used to hear on Ceefax late at night after the main BBC programming had finished.

What'S Up Super Doc by crazedigitalmovies

The strangely serene music is often cut off 'amusingly' in scenes of excruciating dialogue, for little or no purpose. While some of the music is very pleasantly of its time, I doubt the titles-song 'Hold On! I'm Coming!' will be gracing Jonny Trunk's excellent OST Show on Resonance FM anytime soon.

The film is prurient and witless: a deadening combination. You don't have to be Mary Whitehouse to find its objectification of female flesh one-note. Only Porter displays an inkling of character, albeit within the constraints of playing that sex-comedy archetype the uncontrollable nymphomaniac. The New Yorker essays a very passable Scottish accent and has a magnetism quite unlike any of the other identikit actresses who parade for the Superdoc's attention.

1978 was a year of British cinematic atrocities: this joins two other films that would have to be among my ten least favourite films: the bleak, dismal Carry On Emmannuelle and the painful Cook & Moore debacle The Hound of the Baskervilles. What's Up Superdoc! represents a mainstream British culture happy to turn out utter shite at the same time as Post Punk, disco, experimental theatre and television drama were proving far more progressive forces.

It's rubbish. It's British rubbish. No buts about it.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Major: grey manna from heaven or deep, grey emptiness?

'For a time, Major took his charter very seriously. The absurdity of a citizens' charter, written in secret by a government department and launched by a prime minister, escaped him. As his predecessor had virtually abolished citizens, we are probably not yet very real to him either.'
Sarah Benton (1991), 'Viewpoint: Citizen Major', Marxism Today, July, p.9.

'And he briefly resurrects old enmities, pointing out "an early example of... the Times's ability to be wrong on every major issue".'
no author (2007) 'Major's Game: book review of More than a Game: The Story of Cricket's Early Years', The Economist, 16th June, p.101.

'John Major's bizarre resignation - an act more of bravado than of bravery - will solve very little and carries considerable risks [...] It all smacks of Richard II, not Henry V.'
Simon Jenkins (1995), 'This midsummer madness', The Times, 24th June, p.18.

'We have had a government that tried to operate an economy as well as a society according to blunt, free-market principles. It's clearly failed. What we don't have in Mr Major is an alternative ideology. We've got a change of style, and a lot of rhetoric about a classless society and opportunity for all - but we do not have a way forward.'
Gordon Brown (1991) 'After Thatcher: Business as Usual', Marxism Today, January, p.26.

'Mothers who wouldn't know what to do with a Heseltine or a Portillo wish their daughters could find a nice man like John Major to bring home to tea.'
Alice Thomson (1994) 'Can women's votes save John Major?' The Times, 2nd February, p.15.

'As Thatcher's preferred successor, John Major represents continuity. But he also represents the routinisation of charisma, and the dissipation of the energy, the radicalism, and the conviction that suffused the Thatcher decade.'
Andrew Gamble (1991) 'After Thatcher: Following the Leader', Marxism Today, January, p.15.

'In a speech marked by the xenophobic smack of  its attack on foreign 'scroungers', Mr Lilley openly and impertinently cheeked Mr Major for referring to himself and other right-wingers as 'bastards' - saying that he had it on his mother's authority that he was not 'fatherless' - and capping all by echoing a Thatcherite rant against the powers of a European superstate.'
Anthony Bevins (1993), 'Bastards are the masters, for now', The Guardian, 10th October, p.8.

'John Major became an object of contempt for his dogged refusal to preside over the break-up of the Conservative Party.'
Bagehot (2003) 'Archbishop Major', The Economist, 16th August, p.27.

Steadily, there has been a perceptible shift in perceptions of John Major.

Obviously, his resolutely centrist performance in Westminster on 22nd October will provide a contrast to the neo-liberal dogmatism of Cameron-Osborne Toryism and the shallow poujadism of Nigel Farage. In this week's New Statesman, ex-cricketer and columnist Ed Smith writes of Major's 'late popularity' and 'measured and affable public appearances'. He regards him as 'a victim of the way the market for news and public opinion operates', whose reputation has grown since leaving office - in stark contrast to Tony Blair's. Smith will have seen Major's intervention on energy prices, proposing a windfall tax in a manner that is rather more in touch with public opinion than with notions of a sacrosanct private sector 'market':

The erstwhile 'Grey Man' has produced evidence of a 'hinterland', publishing books on cricket and music hall. Not areas that will prove everyone's cup of Earl Grey, but surely specific interests to be commended, next to the career politics and the workaday immersion in pop culture of the current generation.

Cultural historian Alwyn W. Turner has written recently - in his new 1990s history - of Major's brief period of ascendancy as a 'classless' Tory, making great strides initially as someone from an unusually humble background who seemingly had more of a 'common touch' than the absurdly messianic latter-day Thatcher.

Turner writes of his understated compassion for the dying, cancer-afflicted left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer. In January 1991, Major crossed the floor of the House of Commons, knelt beside Heffer and had a private conversation. Turner also mentions a curious flirtatious side that few knew existed prior to revelations of his affair with Edwina Currie. "Would you like a nibble of my mace?" he is said to have cheekily asked Margaret Beckett. All reflective of very different personality to the abrasive, inhumanly driven Thatcher. Major took a notably more realistic, constructive approach to the Northern Ireland question than his predecessor - leading to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993.

It is beyond question that of living Prime Ministers, Major would be the most affable company on a personal level, as ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin's diaries attest. He clearly sees things on a human scale, and Mullin reveals that he was prescient regarding the threat to democratic and cultural values posed by Rupert Murdoch. He was too weak to act on this, however. Though his successor Blair was much more fawning in his subservience to the culturally debasing mogul.

Major, then, might just be the ex-PM you could just about engage with in an earnest and affable conversation over a pint...

Ultimately, however, his period as Prime Minister was disastrous.

The Criminal Justice Act was passed in 1994.

The railways were privatized from 1994.

In the same year, he presided over what Turner describes as a shambolic and demeaning failure to pass the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill to legislate for disability rights - earning the ire of Stephen Hawking among many others: 'I don't think any disabled person should vote for the present government unless they do something to atone for the shabby way they killed the Civil Rights Bill'. The responsible minister Nicholas Scott had killed the Bill with amendments and had used an eighty minute speech to talk it out, while refusing to admit that that was what he was doing.

Major maintained the despicable Section 28 and expanded anti-Union laws set in train under Thatcher.

Whatever his personal qualms - as detailed by Turner - he sanctioned Heseltine's steadfastly inhumane closing of the pits in late 1992.

His years in office were, as The Observer argued in the week of his vainglorious and bathetic resignation as party leader in 1995, 'characterised by crisis management'. That ludicrous episode demonstrated self-inflicted crisis, with the "PUT UP OR SHUT UP" call being followed by a challenge out of left - or rather right - field from vulcan headbanger John Redwood.

This 1994 sketch from The Day Today of a film 'reserved for times of national emergency' captured this sense of perpetual crisis, as well as the Major years' deluded, deadening preoccupation with heritage. The show's brilliance was to have this wonderfully ludicrous projection of Tory normalcy broadcast after its fabricated scoop of John Major punching the Queen. In its cynical fantasy the video summarises the government's attempt to paper over the cracks left by virulent Thatcherism. It represents the sad bathos of its times, as a hapless, non-threatening PM presided over measures that threatened the quality of a large number of people's lives - all the while pretending: EVERYTHING'S ALL RIGHT.

Major presided over a stagnant Britain. While there was vivid, energized cultural opposition from 1990-94, this was quickly overtaken by a resurgent cultural conservatism. Areas as diverse as television situation comedy, cinema, popular music and stand-up comedy saw a perceptible shift away from politicised, socially engaged content towards pastiche and willful, disconnected individualism.

The movement from Mike Leigh's Naked to Secrets and Lies indicates a shift. As does the movement from the likes of Derek Jarman being supported to the ascendancy of Guy Ritchie. Lad culture, while surely lamented by Major personally, was a significant legacy of his era - and the media culture grew ever more aggressive and cynical.

At the time, as the years passed, it felt as if his tired, incompetent and nasty government would never end. In 1996, yours truly was moved to write and record a song attacking the newly established National Lottery, coming across like Adrian Mole channeling John Lydon. In this intemperate, hastily assembled slice of punk agit-prop, my thirteen-year-old self lashed out at those running the culture, discerning "no ray of light in their Major-grey cheeks!" The song was a rather ghastly racket, but few could doubt the sincerity of the irritation at the man whose very name had became a sort of adjective synonym of 'dismal'.

Of course, now I know a bit more. Major did have the misfortune to preside over a party haunted, indeed besotted by the ghastly subject of its 1990 matricide. They have never looked back on looking back, remaining to this day the 'bastards' - in Major's words - that she created, forever seeking revenge against her assassins and completion of her ideological 'project'. The man Major might have had an instinct for the moderate, 'decent' English vote. His fellow party members haven't, at least since the passing of the Macmillans, Macleods and Whitelaws. In October 1995, Hugh Dykes, moderate Tory MP for Harrow East, noted that the representatives at his party's Blackpool Conference were 'more and more right-wing, narrow-minded, selfish and xenophobic'. Hardly an understatement when the event included the bombastic, bellicose "Don't mess with Britain" speech from bastard-in-chief Portillo. This era saw the ascendancy of such lovely humans as Peter Lilley, IDS, Michael Howard, John Redwood and Ann Widdecombe. A supposedly decent man in charge merely provided ideal incubation conditions for some of the lowest impulses:

While the 'Grey Man' possessed an unusually compassionate outlook - devoid of sharp elbows and social scorn - he simply did not run the country according to these 'decent', 'One Nation' Tory principles. He did little if anything to quell the juggernaut of neo-liberalism unleashed by his abhorrent predecessor. The best that can be said of him is that he didn't preside over a foreign policy disaster like the Iraq War or the sort of retrograde 'reforms' of health, education and welfare that Cameron's government are now pursuing.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

'There's a message in our song'

'A New Year's Resolution to write something of value...' - Camera Obscura, 'New Year's Resolution' (2013)
'It don't feel much like a church without a God inside' - Robyn Hitchcock, 'Meat' (1981)
'Music is the healing voice of the world / It's understood by every man, woman, boy and girl' - The O'Jays, 'I Love Music' (1975)
'The feeling of falling, the thrill of it all' - Prefab Sprout, 'I Love Music' (2009)
'Understand why you dance' - The O'Jays - 'Message in the Music' (1976)

The O'Jays can so often be relied on to get to the nub: 'We going to talk about all the things that been going down / Get your information from this means of communication'. Recently, in my day job, a discussion of students' exam answers regarding the role of music in 'the curriculum' and in society got thinking about what music means personally. Also, teaching A2 Communication and Culture has inevitably got me thinking about music and what it means in our lives. You can only discuss music with music at the forefront, so I've embedded ten songs, to assist.

Today, I've been listening to Camera Obscura's sparkling new album, Desire Lines, so really ought to have picked something from that, but there's a limited amount to select from on that old platform of YouTube.

Listen! Listen to those sparkling ethereal harmonies at the start; move your disco clasp tight the jubilant, serious and huggable whole:

The O'Jays - 'Message in The Music' (1976)

'Trying to make you see that things
Ain't like they supposed to be'

This is a stormy, pleasurable, political delight; understanding why we dance.

Music expresses the ineffable as well as the tangible. The Bacharach crackerjack and the Half Man Half Biscuit diatribe. The celestial sublime and disconsolate confusion:

Todd Rundgren - 'Sometimes I Don't Know How to Feel' (1973)

Celestial soul evoking confessional, existential uncertainty. How humans can dread. This song hits the hardest of anything on a great, weird record with the aptest ever title.

Within this true star and wizard, there is difference and convergence of perspectives and lives. As in the Alain Badiou volume I've been reading, In Praise of Love...

The Real Tuesday Weld - 'Asteroids' (2001)

Music can be the short-term consolation or the long-term escape route. It has deep meanings - the context affects what we may feel about it. We make value judgments because we are human and have to enter into dialogue with others and ourselves. Is it at all about 'taste'? Isn't that too linked with spurious social status and tinkering lack of commitment?

It can speak of ambivalence towards a year or time in your life, as with this miraculous swooning pop, which  also effortlessly carries you forward into the present and future, while reminding me of 2005.

The Shortwave Set - 'Is It Any Wonder?' (2005)

It can evoke and drip with 'British Summertime'. Glide in linguistic eloquence and caverns of porous, vertiginous dreams.

'No big deal but I feel the real you is the blue that I knew before / The refined and reclining, declining, demure and unsure'

Luke Sutherland is a novelist and sound artist; an inspired figure well in advance of our mainstream music marketplace. We avert our ears from this, impoverishing ourselves with a 'sustenance' of Peace and Mumfords:

Long Fin Killie - 'British Summertime' (1997)

Jordan: The Comeback is mine; when low, I have put this array of delights on and been transported somewhere external, more deeply internal and eternal. My favourite album, still:

Prefab Sprout - 'Looking for Atlantis' (1990)

While tilting at windmills, pursuing grails and great ideals, you might overlook much else that could get you closer to those ideals.

'I know you're listening out there somewhere...'

It can gleam with promise both breezily Utopian and hazily worldly, as in the passage of Bark Psychosis' 'The Black Meat'. Yearning, unfurling loveliness at 2:49 after that ashen pause.

Bark Psychosis - 'The Black Meat' (2005)

Like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis into the daunting world.

Music knows. And can help you know things: social, political, romantic, aesthetic, delinquent, orderly, reflective, rambunctious.

It knows about 'My Lonely Room'. It can be a gateway to pasts that would seem impossible in the present: a 1964 of A Hard Day's Night and this gorgeousness:

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas - 'In My Lonely Room' (1964)

The ephemeral nature of popular song. When so much is ephemeral, shouldn't we pay it attention?

I know, it can be an inoffensive background - to dictate the party mood, or mere aural wallpaper, enjoyed at a remove. People are free to see it in this way; maybe they aren't missing out and are better adjusted in their indifference?

I could never be indifferent to the stuff of synths; of vintage OMD, PSB, the Korgis, New Musik and New Order... Even of Season 18 Doctor Who music. Even if I had never got up and sang 'World in Motion' with three other members of the Phoenix brethren Christmases ago.

New Order - 'Thieves Like Us' (1984)

As Lee Perry might have it, it transplants. Transplants the past into your present and worms its way into the memories that last. It is not surprising to find that one of the most useful therapies for Alzheimer's sufferers is singing songs remembered from their youths. Words and music in combination burrow their way deeper into us than anything.

Try spinning the narrative that it doesn't matter or can be viewed wholly through an economic calculus. See how far you get with most people.

Music: not in isolation, never. It exists in society and history, it encultures and accompanies the most alone. Provides chance for common or uncommon ground to be found.

It transcends us and enables us to ascend like the tingling on an adolescent spine. It's not about number one but two, as Nilsson or Patrick McGoohan might remind us. Do we stay rigid, confined and unchanging or open that door, as Richard Hawley would have it?

Milton Nascimento - 'Clube Da Esquina No.2' (1972)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Not One of Us: The Political and Cultural Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

‘She has always struck me as, on a personal level, a completely fucking shit human being, not at all one of those people of whom it is possible to say ‘I’m sure she’s a nice person, but…’, and an emphatic riposte to the popular notion that ‘there’s a little bit of good in everyone’.’ – Alex Niven, The Fantastic Hope (14/04/2008)

‘Thatcher is remembered as The Iron Lady only because she possessed completely negative traits such as persistent stubbornness and a determined refusal to listen to others. […] Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes.’ – Morrissey interview reposted (08/04/2013)

‘Any man who finds himself on a bus at the age of 26 can account himself a failure’ – Margaret Thatcher (1986)

‘There is too much Thatcherite ideology ingrained in our political culture to celebrate, even for one night.’ – Ben Sellers, The World Upside Down (08/04/2013)

‘From now on the electorate was to be led, not followed. What ‘I believe’ became what all were to believe, and remained so for twelve years.’ – Simon Jenkins, Accountable to None (Penguin, 1996, vii)

‘Perhaps if a Labour government had reduced the prosperous middle-classes of the Home Counties to mass unemployment and poverty, and stockbrokers desperate to save their livelihoods had been chased by police on horseback through the City of London, they would understand the bitterness’ – Owen Jones, The Independent (16/09/2012)

London became a city Hogarth would have recognized.’ - Glenda Jackson, parliament (10/04/2013)

Thatcher’s own attitudes are less important here than the political context she exploited. The broad base of support for the New Right in politics included an element of white English nationalism, which successively gave allegiance to the extra-parliamentary threat of the National Front in the 1970s, and to the relatively authoritarian and jingoistic government headed by Thatcher.’ – Joseph Brooker, Literature of the 1980s: After the Watershed (Edinburgh University Press, 2010, pp.144-5)

‘Her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing – and we have to replace that… there is good and bad in everyone and for 10 years it has been the bad that has been… promoted and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out-of-touch, cloud cuckoo land and extremist’ – Tony Benn, parliament (1990)

‘I’d vote Socialist. There was a documentary on Margaret Thatcher on ITV last night, and it’s enough to put anybody off.’ – Elton John, NME interview with Charles Shaar Murray (08/03/1975)

In January 2012, I was sat around a table with academic types in a Newcastle pub. One of them had been to see The Iron Lady. We had a measured discussion on the dangers of an ‘apolitical’ film about a decisive figure in our recent political history. The gent who’d seen the film, an affable PhD student at Warwick University, persuasively criticized the sentimental ‘humanizing’ of a woman who was driven by the protestant work ethic and was notable for her steely stoicism. In that social context, I didn’t think I needed to point out the lack of human empathy with the victims of her policies – or the doctrinaire certainty and zeal that genuinely made her more of a Maoist than a mainstream member of British society.

But then the complicated picture does need to be illuminated, as few people younger than I will possess any first-hand memories of Thatcher and often simply know nothing: 

Whether we are of a left, right, liberal or green persuasion, surely none of us are served by forgetting or misrepresenting her personality or politics. In August 2012, Thomas Byrne contributed to a debate regarding left-wing people preparing to celebrate Thatcher’s demise. Byrne is a rare breed – not just a thoughtful Tory, but a north-eastern one – and, unlike Nigel Lamont on Monday’s Newsnight, he clearly grasps at least some of the reasons behind the significant antipathy towards her. 

He counsels fellow Tories thus: ‘When you stop feigning outrage and ignoring the real emotional and social reactions of people who feel they were failed by Thatcher, I’ll stop feigning surprise that so many people still ignore us.’ (1) Indeed; the party’s continued adherence to Thatcherism holds them back from being a palatable option for a large number of voters. The party’s continued adherence to Thatcherism holds them back from any prospect of being a palatable option for a large number of voters, as Colin Kidd pointed out in an insightful recent LRB article.

Much of the mainstream media hagiography misses the fact that in her three election victories 56-58% of the voting electorate cast their ballots for non-Tory candidates. It was the divided opposition that enabled her to win.

Before I go further, it is worth highlighting a few things in her favour: she did – rhetorically at least – stand up to Reagan on the USA’s imperialist invasion of Grenada, taking a pro-self-determination position. However, she did not show quite such principled concern about US abuses in other non-Commonwealth countries. She must take some credit for moving towards diplomacy with the USSR and some nuclear arms reduction. Thatcher was shrewd enough to utilize her knowledge as an Oxford-educated Chemist to make a significant speech to the UN in November 1989 regarding the dangers to the environment relating to climate change. However, in later years, she recanted this constructive stance, falling into line with the right-wing orthodoxy of George W. Bush and Fox News.

When it comes to us being failed by Thatcher, her deregulation of the City of London in 1986 looms large; this led to an exceptionally irresponsible Boom culminating in the following year’s Bust. This more broadly freed up unscrupulous spivs to acquire riches through absurd means like betting on which companies would fail next. Caryl Churchill’s play Serious Money (1987) is the key contemporary depiction, as Brooker notes in his excellent book on 1980s literature. Fry and Laurie also displayed a righteous anger at what she was doing to the culture; they knew that ‘choice’ did not equal quality in broadcasting and that believing unquestioningly in ‘market forces’ is a negation of humanity itself:

All of which makes this pronouncement in her 1987 Smash Hits interview all the more disingenuous: ‘You know, some of the rules are coming back and life is much better when you have rules to live by.’ She preached orderliness, yet life for many in the UK became substantially more unsettled and uncertain during her tenure.

Yes, a large number of us in the North shiver at the thought of what was done. This was apparent during Sam West’s April 2012 Northern Stage production of Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door - a lively ‘epic history’ of north-east working class culture including songs by Alex Glasgow and inspired by Sid Chaplin’s County Durham coalfield writings. (2) On the stage prior to the performance there stood a large billboard film poster of Meryl Streep as Thatcher. Scary, harsh eyes staring you out – belying the supposed Hollywood woolliness of the film. The play’s conclusion was heartrending: it was originally staged in 1968 with the prospects for socialism still – broadly – on course.

This version of the play included a brief coda with a wistful song regarding the historical progress the working class had clearly achieved by 1968 via the likes of Thomas Hepburn: “It’s only a story / a fanciful tale”. The Thatcher-turn in history has rendered this all merely a story to tell the bairns today, albeit with tantalizing if threatened remnants of the Attlee world just about visible. It isn't clear-cut, but by 1968 safety and working hours and conditions had been vastly improved out of all recognition compared to previous eras. As Ken Loach stated in his recent documentary film, the Spirit of '45 had won significant advances for society. Plater’s original ending was upbeat and dryly jovial in his best style; the 2012 staging was shattering in its evocation of a backwards movement. ‘Community’ is too broad a word to evoke the collective memory and experience that Plater’s text conveyed when enacted on stage. This was the essence of socialism in practice, intrinsically social.

The sort of pride in work and companionship shown in the play is anathema to Thatcher. Long hours are a badge of honour to a City banker or grocer’s daughter wanting to change the country – not, apparently, a backward Victorian horror. She incarnated the ludicrous idea that we work better when working longer, and that there is some intrinsic nobility in ‘working hard’: toiling so absurdly hard destroyed her personally and influenced her later hubris. Some form of self-sacrifice for the ‘good of the country’? The strong-willed individual: battling for ‘The Individual’? It all takes on a creepy, barking mad, Ayn Rand complexion.

Where ‘hard-work’ was extolled, being on benefits was denounced, with Tebbit attack-polecat subtlety. There is a strident body of opinion in this land that ‘benefit dependency’ is a problem. Whether you concur with the swivel-eyed, blanket-condemnations of the Daily Mail or possess a humane perspective on diverse people’s circumstances, you must acknowledge this ironic truth: that Mrs Thatcher actually presided over the colossal expansion of welfare provision that resulted from her policies. In the political calculus, she preferred former industrial and manufacturing workers pacified and on the dole rather than in unionized employment and part of the ‘enemy within’.

I'm over 26 and I sometimes use a bus. What a failure I am!
It is, of course, inconceivable, that heavy-industry could have remained as it was indefinitely; yet, as Byrne acknowledges, there were other alternative options: liberal, social democratic and ‘wet’ Tory as well as Old Labour – more ameliorative policies and humane methods could have been used.

In her Smash Hits interview, Thatcher tries to be relatively amicable, though comes across as patronising: ‘most young people rebel and then gradually they become more realistic’. She speaks of her youthful liking for the 1940s Hollywood cinema of Carmen Miranda and Jean Arthur but even here she is drawn back to a characteristic emphasis on toil: ‘But I suppose things turn out to be less glamorous the closer you get to them: they were jolly hard working, jolly hard working.’ She speaks of the escapism in enjoying South of the Border and The Plainsman and also that young people shouldn’t be persuaded ‘into a direction into which they don’t want to go’.

The Guardian, 07/02/1986
However, the hectoring impulse is never far away, overwhelming these accommodating words which had no doubt been given her by cynically youth-conscious PR advisers. The moralistic matriarch comes into view: ‘On the other hand if they want to do terribly glamorous things which aren’t going to give them a living, you’ve got to say ‘now, look dear, don’t you think it would be worthwhile taking some training which will give you a much better chance of earning a basic living?’ She was a cultural philistine; in the interview, her most enthusiastic cultural endorsement is of a Nanette Newman-featuring Fairy Liquid advertisement on the telly.

Thatcher’s ideal New Year’s Eve party at Chequers would have included Ronald Reagan, Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Archer, Paul Daniels, General Pinochet and Jimmy Savile – with Brotherhood of Man playing on the sound system, as the Smash Hits interview indicates. It is not without irony then that she spoke of the importance of friends; she clearly knew how to pick them...

While she clearly galvanized a rich oppositional counterculture, she ultimately made the terrain much less fertile for any future such sub-cultures. This has left mainstream culture a mean, bland and barren ‘business friendly’ zone. In music, from the Specials to Sudden Sway to Elvis Costello to Roger Waters to Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl to Crass to The Housemartins, there was articulate and implacable opposition to her anti-humanism. Red Wedge saw not just Weller and Bragg, but Prefab Sprout and The Smiths appearing on stage in necessary union.

On Monday, David Stubbs wrote in The Quietus of the earlier 1980s post-punk response: ‘Everything about the new music of the 1980s – forward-looking, racially diverse, permissive, insolent, gleefully engaged in the “promotion of homosexuality”, to use one of the more vile phrases of the Tories – flew in the face of the tetchy, small-minded, prudish, selfish flight behind the net curtains of pre-Beatles mores represented by Thatcher and her ilk’.

The progressive culture was vanquished, even if some of its values became accommodated in the mainstream from the 1990s on. Ultimately, the repellent cash-till market dogma of Mick Jagger’s ‘Let’s Work’ won out over The Human League’s ‘Open Your Heart’, whatever those songs' chart placings when released.

An eminent literary man of her and our time, Ian McEwan, has produced a tepid, ineffectually ‘balanced’ ode to her in The Guardian. He wasn’t personally affected for the worse by Thatcherism in the 1980s, unlike working-class people in the north, Scotland or Wales. This fact explains, but does not excuse, the lack of empathy in this liberal individualist novelist’s words – as well as his unconvincing explanation of why the 1970s were so bad.

Right-wing pundits’ attacks on the 1970s ring hollow besides the Thatcher-inspired disaster zone we are now living in. Harold Wilson, flawed PM though he clearly was, has an increasingly impressive legacy in comparison to hers, on all of the important measures. He did less harm to human beings and society.

A society one of the most equal in Western Europe by 1979 now stands as one of the most unequal and divided.

‘NO. NO. NO.’

The Guardian, 15/11/1990

Ah yes… that ‘last term’. From 1979-87, she had been a dangerous but clearly formidable political force. Whatever clever judgement she had once possessed completely deserted her following her third victory. She started using the royal ‘we’ – “we are a grandmother” – becoming an irrational, ranting little Englander, with her attacks on Europe.  In this twilight of her ‘reign’, she was utterly obstinate, self-righteous and messianic. Other than the current coalition, surely no three years of any other government has ever produced quite so much pernicious, culturally degrading legislation as the following:

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988
The Football Spectators Act 1989
The Broadcasting Act 1990
The Community Charge (poll tax) 1989-90

‘Think for a Minute’, as the Housemartins urged. What is her actual legacy? A coarser public discourse. The lexis is more News International, rather than Chaucer. No, we don’t have Alan Plater doing a modern-day northern adaptation of The Canterbury Tales on ITV now. We’ve had The Sun dominating. Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney freeloading. Richard Littlejohn. A newly licensed yobbery: whether on the council estates or the City of London stock-market. Lives, working or otherwise, were sacrificed for an economic experiment dreamed up by marginal think tanks and that despicable crank Sir Keith Joseph. She paraded an inverse-snobbery regarding the arts and public services, reducing everything to its monetary price. The old nineteenth-century ‘cash nexus’.  He’s not Yosser Hughes, he’s nobody.

The Guardian, 07/06/1983
She took sociopathic delight in dividing communities and attacking ‘the enemy within’, who were largely workers concerned for their jobs and localities, not a uniform bloc of Stalinist revolutionaries.

She should have taken a career as a scientist.

The Falklands War. A new friend I met recently, who was around 20 at the time, noted how the atmosphere in country seemed to tangibly shift in a matter of days; previously sensible, liberal or progressive people were swept along in a fundamentally distasteful jingoistic tide. Denis Healey’s description of Thatcher ‘glorying in slaughter’ does not seem unfair when considering the Belgrano episode and how she posed for the press in its aftermath. Military dictator General Galtieri was indeed hateful; but so was the act to sink a boat that was out of the designated exclusion zone and moving away from the HMS Conqueror. 323 Argentinian lives were ended. Whatever claims some have made regarding her understanding of the gravity of war and desire to reduce casualties, she gave credence to the mindless ‘GOTCHA’ mentality.

“NO. NO. NO.”

No: to thoughts of a work-life balance. No: to oppose the ‘yes’ of Molly Bloom. ‘No such thing as society’. No: to the post-WW2 political culture and the idea that organised labourers should have a say. See Joseph Strick’s 1966 film The Hecklers here if you don’t believe me: we had a mainstream culture thoroughly engaged with politics in a way that seems alien to us today. 

It is highly ironic that this conviction politician created and fostered attitudes that range from the apathetic or resigned to the poisonously ignorant. A year or so before 1979 election, she cynically spoke of immigrants ‘swamping’ the country; she introduced Section 28; she tried to introduce ID cards for footer fans; she ran down public services and infrastructure; she presided over mass unemployment and then directed blame towards those unlucky enough to be unemployed. We live with the after-effects: the horrible rhetoric of ‘skivers’, ‘shirkers’, ‘sponging asylum seekers’ and ‘immigrants taking our jobs’.

She presided over policies that abetted immigration – as global capitalism always will, yet she indulged the mean-spirited, who take the benefits of market liberalism but are averse to seeing immigrants taking jobs that are not necessarily a God-given right to anyone under such a system. Therefore, her legacy includes the risible UKIP, with their ‘three million Bulgarians are coming to Eastleigh’ and a daily avalanche of disgraceful tabloid falsehoods.

Her legacy is further dividing the society she claimed didn’t exist. She encouraged people to scapegoat trade unionists, immigrants, gay people or Osborne’s ‘shirkers’. All of which conceals a colossal transfer of resources away from the average working person and towards the City of London and Tory donors. That is History, that is what happened – an 'enemy within' was gleefully vanquished and power redistributed.

“NO. NO. NO.”

No: to the life of the many, ultimately. When I think of Thatcher's impact, her legacy is in the single file insularity I have seen around me. It is in that tendency among 'Thatcher’s children' to accept being atomised and cut off from other people; I have to fight this off, but it isn’t easy, as this way of life has had currency for decades now. Showing empathy for others is going against the grain today. A good deal of the pettiness, cruelty and entitlement I have been witness to can be laid at her door, directly or indirectly.

In the booklet to the BFI’s Miners’ Campaign Tapes DVD, is reprinted a New Statesman article from the novelist David Peace, composed twenty years on from the Strike and circa the publication of his acclaimed novel, GB84. He sets out what was at stake in 1984-5: ‘Sacrifice and selflessness versus brutality and bribery, fear and greed. And we all know who won. And we all know who lost – their jobs, their families, their communities, their culture, their heritage – 150 years of socialist heritage. British heritage, not nostalgia. Not romanticism. A heritage of sacrifice, of selflessness. A sacrifice and a selflessness born out of compassion and empathy – qualities that cannot be bought or stolen from you.’

I refuse to accept that we are, to quote Nye Bevan on Hugh Gaitskell, ‘desiccated calculating machines’. That it is in our nature and interests to relentlessly weigh up our interests in mere pecuniary, self-interested terms. Thatcher commandeered the language and enforced the cheerless ideas that now seem to hold the public in a vice-like grip. It is an urgent necessity, as Mark Fisher argues, for the many of us who despise her corrosive legacy to be pro-active in over-turning all this fundamentally evil, weird shit.

      (1)     Byrne is, however, wrong to primarily credit Thatcher with bringing Nissan to the North East; this was mainly the work of Sunderland’s Labour Council leader Charles Slater, and, to an extent, Thatcher’s arch-enemy in the Tory party, Michael Heseltine at the DTI. He has always been rare in modern Conservative circles for advocating that government cash should go into stimulating industry.

      (2)    This production was also adapted for BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Drama strand, TX: 29/09/2012.