Sunday, March 30, 2008


To the lay observer – I’m so lay, I don’t even have kids of my own to concern me – this year’s conference of the National Union of Teachers seems to have been hearteningly assertive. Delegates voted on a number of propositions that, in past decades, would have had the Tory press foaming at the mouth even more than it did this week. That press reports frequently misrepresent what the teachers discussed and voted upon is only to be expected.

One course of action they certainly did determine to pursue was the withdrawal of labour if their pay claim is not recognized and if their working conditions are not attended to. Those who taught me half a century ago would be amazed at the kind of aggression, brutality, presumption and indifference that teachers routinely suffer in classrooms today right across the education system. Indeed, the ignorance and captiousness of parents, who are apt to support their darlings against the wisdom of the teachers, has become one of the worst aspects of trying to instil basic skills into unsocialized kids who rule the roost at home.

In a day or two, we shall know whether a union-wide ballot has won support for a one-day strike on April 24th, the first walkout by teachers since 1986. The NUT wants a ten per cent pay increase, the government has offered 2.45 per cent, with further rises of 2.3 per cent next year and the year after. The NUT says that this is effectively below the inflation rate and hence a pay cut in real terms. They have a point.

I have always deplored the line taken by successive governments that key workers should never go on strike. If they’re so key, pay them properly. Don’t oblige them to give up their vocation and leave the profession because they can’t afford to get on the housing ladder or care for their own kids. Don’t tell them it’s immoral or illegal for them to down tools and then take advantage of the power you’ve taken from them by keeping them underpaid. Teachers, nurses, paramedics, police officers, prison warders, social workers and military service personnel should be paid just as well as city slickers and sports and television so-called celebrities, than whom they are considerably more valuable. These keys workers should make common cause. A general strike of public sector workers would not only bring down the government, it would put future governments on notice that pay for public service is a national scandal that has to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Of course, teachers do not necessarily offer a warm embrace to every kind of fellow toiler. Much was made of a supposed vote at the NUT conference to ban military recruitment in schools. That wasn’t of course what the NUT motion stated. The majority was for supporting any teacher declining to join in recruitment “based on misleading propaganda”, a proposition so unexceptionable it was hardly worth debating. Needless to say, the chasm between what is understood by the notion of “misleading propaganda” and what the Ministry of Defence calls “raising awareness” may be traversed by a squad of semiological foot soldiers simply marking time. One man’s lie is another’s truth. Perhaps the answer is for every school visit by a military spokesperson to be accompanied by a pacifist or some other sceptic articulate enough to ask the warrior the pertinent questions about training, bullying, Deepcut barracks, initiation ceremonies, military justice, equipment, conditions while on active service and aftercare for those injured and/or traumatized.

Another NUT vote was to be on the proposition that faith schools be abolished but the item sadly fell off the agenda. What a good motion, though. General Secretary Steve Sinnott said that abolition was not the union’s policy but that he favoured a limit. I favour total abolition. Teaching is about opening minds. Supernatural superstition is about closing them. If you are “instructed” in the Bible or the Q’ran or the Talmud every day, you’re not receiving a rounded education.

The conference did debate religion in schools. It did not, as some newspapers suggested, vote to throw open every British school to every mad mullah who wants to recruit suicide bombers. The NUT broadly favours a notion of teachers from different religions visiting schools to explain what their faith has to offer. A spokesman from the National Secular Society warned, reasonably enough, that “it will be the zealots who will be imposing their will on everyone else”. I would propose a makeweight for such visits similar to the one I proposed for the military, a voice to articulate the rational objections to supernatural fantasies that schoolkids generally do not have the knowledge or confidence to challenge.

The growing militancy of the teachers is a good indication that they are beginning to express their own worth again in the face of being taken for granted by the government and the press. Government is always about priorities and possibilities. If it’s possible for the government to afford to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s possible to afford to pay public service workers a living wage. Yup, it’s really that simple.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


I thought at the time that there could never be a regime in a democracy more mendacious, more underhand and more impervious to reality or criticism that the Nixon White House but once again on Monday the Bush II White House topped it.

Acknowledging that the death toll of American personnel (including eight civilians) in Iraq since the invasion five years and a week ago has now reached 4,000, President Bush declared: “One day people will look back at this moment in history and say ‘Thank God there were courageous people willing to serve, because they laid the foundations for peace for generations to come’.” To anyone with a scintilla of sensitivity, the obvious rejoinder is the famous line of Tacitus: “They have made a wasteland and called it peace”.

That Bush spends his every waking hour in denial has been clear since he began actively running for the presidency in 1999. Yet he has astute advisors around him – Condoleeza Rice stood at his side when he made his latest vapid claim – and, if they wished to make it clear that it wasn’t them who told him to say that, they could brief him with some harmless observation (one that could be seen to be erroneous even by unreconstructed neocons) which would only redound on him and not on them. It is surely the case that Bush is exhaustively coached every time he is unleashed on the press and, through them, the public; the impression he often gives of a man who doesn’t quite understand the points he is making confirms that.

The back-up material that the White House releases on occasions like this is equally expressive of an administration that does not listen to what it says. The latest roll call, observed Bush’s press secretary Dana Perino, was “a sober moment”. Even if the President were not himself a recovered alcoholic, the phrase is unfortunate. Government is not a game, it’s not for fun. All of Bush’s business should be sober and conducted in a sober frame of mind, whether it be his policy on stem cell research or his plans to try to prevent the world sliding into recession.

Perino went on: “President Bush believes that every life is precious and he spends time every day thinking about those who’ve lost their lives on the battlefield”. No he doesn’t. Nobody does that, not even somebody who is (unlike Bush) genuinely devout as a matter of life-long conviction and upbringing. My late parents loomed immeasurably larger in my life than any serviceman or woman whom he has never met does in Bush’s and yet weeks go by without my giving either of them a thought. Nonetheless, my feelings about them run no less deep. If Bush makes some kind of religiose daily routine of contemplating the deaths of American warriors, then its very ritual nature robs it of substance. In any case, what about the lives lost other than on a battlefield? Are they of no account just because most of them were not American? And if he genuinely and literally thinks that “every life is precious”, why did he confirm more death sentences when Governor of Texas than any other gubernatorial American in the nation’s history?

“He gets a report about every single soldier who passes away” went on Perino, resorting to craven euphemism. “And he always pauses a moment to think about them and to offer a prayer for their loved ones”. The making of empty gestures is bad enough: to have these gestures described as if they are meaningful is treating us like boobies.

And there’s more from Perino: “The President has said the hardest thing a commander-in-chief will do is send young men and women into combat and he’s grieved for every lost American life, from the very first several years ago to those lost today”. Dana Perino may be a bright girl but she has the look of one chosen for her looks (it’s an enjoyable irony that toothsomeness has become a liability for women who want to excel in a career where you need to be taken seriously). Given that most of those who heard or read her will know precisely which year it was that the first American lives were lost fighting in Iraq, the looseness of “several years ago” is pretty insulting. But it is difficult to credit that sending unknown cannon fodder to war is so darned hard when the only comprehensible reason for Bush not to bring them all home right now is his unwillingness to lose face. Indeed, the White House has been putting it about that the expectation of troop withdrawals this summer is too optimistic. This is also perfectly understandable. As Bush clearly cannot resolve the Iraq quagmire before leaving office, he may as well drive his troops deeper into the Iraqi sand so that his successor has a worse mess to clear up. Bush may be calculating that, as happened to LBJ after JFK over Vietnam, the blame for the calamity of Iraq may in time be transferred to President Obama, McCain or H Clinton. Add ‘cynical’ to mendacious, underhand and impervious to reality or criticism.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Up in town recently, I took the opportunity to catch up with some movies and shows. A friend rather unexpectedly proposed that we see Hairspray in its stage musical manifestation and with a certain becoming reluctance I agreed to escort her, despite the show’s cast being led by two of my least favourite performers, Michael Ball and Mel Smith.

It all turned out a little differently from expected. First, my friend got poorly and cried off, allowing me to buy a reduced price day seat in the front row, a vantage point she certainly would not have tolerated. I got to the theatre at 9.30am and found only four queueing ahead of me but within ten minutes there must have been 30 behind me. I had the distinct impression that everyone within earshot was seeing the show for the tenth time.

Second, Mr Smith has already left the cast, even though it only opened four months ago. I think playing a few weeks just for the reviews is poor stuff. His place as Wilbur Turnblad has been taken by Ian Talbot, a perfectly unexceptionable pro of the old school. Third, Mr Ball gives the performance of his life. His abiding sin, vanity, is not appropriate to the role of Edna Turnblad, the heroine’s mother, which, since John Waters’ original non-musical movie of 1988, has always been played by a man (the late drag artiste Divine originally; Harvey Fierstein and a succession of others including George Wendt of Cheers fame in the Broadway musical; John Travolta in the movie of this second version of the material). Ball wears plentiful padding for the role but the arm flab and the multiple chins are entirely his own. He’ll need to take himself in hand when the run is over. Not much room for vanity there.

It would be a rare curmudgeon who was not charmed by this confection. I suspect that, had you been in a position to glance my way at pretty much any point during the proceedings, you would have caught me with a silly grin on my face. It is wholly good-natured and energetic and the musical score, utterly unmemorable, serves its purpose and offends none. The company is a good mix of handy types and they still play it as if it is the gypsy matinee in the first week of previews.

Mel Smith apart, every lead has won an award. Leanne Jones, the proudly tubby juvenile, Tracy, picked up the Olivier and a brief 6.00 O'Clock News profile a day or two after she won my heart. The yummy boy who, against the cliché, falls for her is Ben James-Ellis who, before he was obliged by Equity to assume the James part of his name, was the sole contestant in last year’s Any Dream Will Do to display any sex appeal (as my regular reader will recall).

The only number that disappointed me was Edna and Wilbur’s sentimental affirmation of their marriage, ‘Timeless to Me’, a perfectly decent little song but the occasion of a deal of ad-libbing and corpsing, led by Michael Ball. The audience falls on this kind of low-grade stuff with hysterical delight – I thought the two women behind me were going to have seizures – believing (I suppose) that it is real and uncontrolled rather than rehearsed and calculated. Think about it: is it likely that this song would suddenly make the performers break up just tonight when they’ve been singing it for four months? Wake up do. I sensed that I was the only person in the audience who didn’t buy this, just as I felt sure I was the only one who recognised John Waters as the voice on the on-stage radio (a little hommage, perhaps, to Mel Brooks and his momentary run-on during the early performances of The Producers on Broadway). But all in all this was a fine, old-fashioned Grand Night Out and the Shaftesbury, premature funeral parlour to more musicals than all the other West End houses put together, must be delighted to play host to one of its rare hits.

A considerably more substantial and significant musical is Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and I steeled myself to see Tim Burton’s movie version, hopeful that Sondheim’s evident satisfaction with it and Burton’s proven track record of taking Grand Guignol seriously would militate against the indignities that so often befall musical plays when they go kicking and screaming before the cameras. The first thing to say is that a miraculous amount of the score is in place, rather more than is customary in filmed musicals. This was a nice surprise: the promotion has slyly downplayed that Sweeney Todd is a musical at all (it’s promoted purely as a Johnny Depp vehicle) and a couple of reviews I read suggested that some musical violence might have been done.

Not a bit of it. The movie looks sensational, like a mix of daguerreotype and animated Victorian woodcut, all silver and sepia with the blood picked out and a pair of sequences in bright colours, one a romanticised memory, the other a no less rosy projection. The acting is first rate. Depp can do no wrong in my book and his handling of the songs is masterly. His voice is nothing special but he completely understands the dynamic of sung drama and the way to handle a lyric, giving him the ability to act a singing role comparable to, for instance, Rosalind Russell in the movie of Gypsy. Depp’s gift for varieties of British accent is well known and for this one he has clearly listened to Paul Whitehouse and other brands of London speech.

Helena Bonham Carter’s career has clambered up to a much higher plane since she fell in with Burton and, while every Mrs Lovett I have seen on the stage (seven or eight now) was better cast and better able to find the level of the character’s comedy, she keeps pace with Depp. The only number that defeats the pair of them is ‘A Little Priest’. Neither has the requisite sense of comedy or feel for burlesque to convey the rollicking satire of this brilliant conceit and Burton stages it in a dismayingly literal fashion.

Alan Rickman is suitably malevolent as the cruel judge on whom Todd seeks his revenge, Timothy Spall runs through his familiar bag of tricks as the beadle, Sacha Baron Cohen is triumphant as the charlatan Pirelli and young Edward Sanders (a born Artful Dodger) has prodigious aplomb and musicality as Tobias. The juve leads are on the pallid side: Jamie Campbell Bower sings well as Anthony but looks disturbingly like a twelve year-old girl; Jayne Wisener’s Joanna has already fallen out of my memory but the character is anyway a cipher, for all that she is the subject of one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written.

Keeping up the blood level, I also saw There Will Be Blood. Now that’s a movie. It’s a rural Citizen Kane and Daniel Day-Lewis is clearly channelling Welles as well as, for the surface detail, John Huston. His performance is nothing short of a miracle. It’s in the interstices, the throw-away moments, the quietness of what he does that, paradoxically perhaps, the genius of the work is most apparent. All of it is palpably lived by Day-Lewis. You never see the mechanics of it or catch him acting and yet it’s huge and authentically Victorian – gracious and courtly and watchful as well as brutal and hubristic and animal. He makes you care about this man even while you fear what he will do. This is one of the great monstres sacrés of cinema and one of the five or six greatest feats of screen acting you will ever see.

What I wasn’t prepared for is that, while the story undoubtedly and inevitably turns bloody, the blood it promises is much more in the sense of kin. This is very much a saga of family, of father and son, of brother and brother though, as is apparent from the outset, these kinships are all false. Indeed, my own reading of the identical twins Paul and Eli is that they are to be seen not as two people but as manifestations of a single split personality; the review in Sight & Sound declares that “the film ultimately refutes” this possibility but I don’t agree. As the saying goes, we never see them together.

I also caught Juno, a wholly fresh and seductive tale of a 16 year-old’s dramas. I was reminded of Jon Stewart’s funny line at the Oscars: “great movies this year but they’re so grim. Thank God for teenage pregnancy”. Diablo Cody’s screenplay richly deserved its awards – this was very much a movie whose success was founded on a sparky script – and Ellen Page’s preternaturally self-possessed Juno was absolutely riveting to watch, enough to make the young Lauren Bacall look like Margaret O’Brien.

I wanted to see No Country for Old Men, being a big fan of, on the one hand, Cormac McCarthy’s novels and, on the other, the Coen Brothers’ movies, but couldn’t fit it in. My host at the house where I was staying, who is in his 70s, said he couldn’t understand most of the dialogue and referred to it as No Country for Deaf Men. With him and his wife, I did see The Kite Runner at their local independent movie house but this was the least of my viewings. Its plot resembles that of Atonement which, for all that I know many detest it, is a far more achieved and honest movie and doesn’t conclude that the answer to the world’s problems is to come and live in the US of A, after a preposterous resolution of a kidnap in Afghanistan suggesting that anybody can be Rambo and get away with it. By and large, local movie-makers do a much more convincing job than western ones who visit and expect to get it in one, even if they are working (as in this case) from a native story.

Elsewhere in the theatre, I went to a matinee of The Sea at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. This is the most accessible of Edward Bond’s works and the first to reach the West End: it’s amusing that it should surface in this most conservative of houses and play an audience of grey heads all, it must be said, listening intently and largely appreciatively. It helps to have someone as accomplished as Eileen Atkins leading the cast. I have also seen Judi Dench as Mrs Rafi and Coral Browne who was its first player – as they say these days, she “created” the role – but I think Dame Eileen is the best. She understands at what level this is a comedy (I’ve never thought that comedy, for all her reputation for fun and larks, is Dame Judi’s forte) but never loses sight of the political underpinnings. David Haig began a bit broadly for my taste as her protagonist, the well-named Hatch, but he settled to it and handled the descent into madness with great skill. Jonathan Kent has become a fine director with a gift for clarity and self-effacement and for blending a company of talents who look unlikely to cohere.

I saw two plays in what we used to call fringe theatres, largely because I have a four-handed play in the market now and venues of this size and kind are the most likely to look upon my work kindly. Neither play was remotely world-shaking and one was simply awful so I shall get depressed if my effort is not thought worthy to be mounted in such company.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


The trouble with democracy, of course, is that it empowers all the idiots. The democratic ideal, so beloved of such great political visionaries as … um … George W Bush, is apt to deliver governments representing such movements as, for instance, Hamas, leaving the pro-democrats fulminating against what they perceive as anti-democratic governments elected by democracy.

At the end of last week, ballots were organised in ten Labour and Liberal Democrat-held constituencies across England to test the demand for a nationwide referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty. There is some doubt as to the reliability of this as a test of public opinion. The ballots were the work of a campaign called I Want a Referendum, a somewhat parti pris convenor for a vote on the desirability or otherwise of a referendum. There was not much evidence of campaigning done in these constituencies, save by the pro-referendum party. There was certainly a variable shortfall in the number of ballot papers issued in the various constituencies, so that a significant proportion of the electorate was actually disenfranchised.

The organisers didn’t let a little thing like an obvious lack of democracy prevent them from claiming that 88 per cent of those who voted did so in favour of a referendum. How far such a figure is verifiable is swathed in mist. The result is hardly more credible than that in favour of Vladimir Putin’s puppet, Dmitri Medvedev, in the Russian presidential elections. Why would a man whom the electorate knows not at all win a landslide? Simply because a not-so-benevolent despot told the people to vote for him.

Just as it would be interesting to know if one per cent of the Russians who voted for Medvedev have the remotest idea of what he stands for (other than Putin by another name), so I would love to know how many of those who voted for a referendum in Britain have read the Lisbon treaty or know what is the constitutional status of referendums. Come to that, I wonder how many of the objectors have the 2005 party manifestoes to hand. “You promised a referendum” is a mantra that may not survive close examination. Proposing to have a referendum or saying that it is your intention to have one is not a promise. Any parent knows that “you promised” is a cry that generates more heat than light.

The suspicion remains – it’s a big suspicion and you know just what it is but it rarely gets mentioned – that large numbers of Britons don’t want to be in Europe at all. They cannot marshal any sort of coherent argument as to why they don’t. It’s a mixture of xenophobia, nostalgia and fantasy. They think if we leave we’ll somehow be more prosperous, less regulation-ridden and better able to refuse entry to economic migrants and asylum seekers. Some of them think it will mean fewer Pakistanis and West Indians “taking the social”, but the people who think that are even more stupid than those who think leaving Europe would be a smart move.

The I Want a Referendum party is of course merely a front for the I Want to Leave the EU party. They are a mix of little Englanders, UKIP and BNP supporters, free-lance racists and general malcontents. They have no programme for Britain outside Europe because they haven’t thought that far; they don’t actually think, they just resent. Somebody representing I Want a Referendum should be obliged to explain objectively just what the economic and social consequences of leaving the Union would be. The electorate is entitled to know in which lower division an unaligned Britain is going to find itself as the global power arrangement reshapes. I suspect Russia will eventually find an accommodation with the EU and perhaps even join it; maybe Israel too. The world will divide into the USA, the EU, China, India and Islam with Britain either along with Australasia and the Far East in a somewhat compromised outer circle or down in the basement with Africa and South America. The Union-quitters had better have a convincing argument to say I am wrong.

Of course, the pro-Europeans have only themselves to blame. Britain has always been the least communitaire member of the EU. The other members must be fed up to the back teeth with our constant requirement of special considerations, vetoes and waivers. What is more, the Europhiles have never made any effort to share the European ideal with the home electorate, rather as though they feel the matter is too complex and sophisticated for the short attention span of hoi polloi. From Macmillan and Heath to Blair and Brown via Roy Jenkins and George Thompson, British politicians have never deigned to attempt to expound their desire for membership. With newspaper proprietors who have never lived in Europe ranged against them, all newspapers reluctant to give more than token space to what is perceived as an unpopular and dull subject and dissent in their own parties (all parties), they have retreated to a state of superior indifference to question or objection.

The pro-Europeans understandably don’t want a referendum that they will certainly lose. They will not lose it because any measurable proportion of the electorate has coherent objections to the Lisbon treaty but because Europe has never been sold or even explained to the electorate. Personally, I would very much appreciate a clear and coherent statement of what Europe wants to achieve and why Britain benefits from being part of that desire but we look for such reassurance in vain. Gordon Brown seems no more likely to give us that than did any of his predecessors. Or perhaps the rather farcical ten-constituency vote will turn out to put some long-needed backbone into the European apologists.