Thursday, 29 June 2017

More thoughts on a play

Quite often, we end up writing about what needs to be said, not what we intend to say. This is because we become so inured to not listening to our real thoughts, that when we put it in charge of our hands and fingers in the strangely magical process of writing, out it all comes.

I reread the last article and realised that it didn't actually say that much about Betrayal per se, so I thought I should pay it a revisit. It's now nearly two weeks since we packed up and moved on, and it's all going hazy surprisingly quickly.  So, here are a few thoughts about the play, the story. and the process.

Now, being the diligent, attentive student I was back at Bangor University in the 1980s, of course Pinter was on our booklists, and of course I had the collected sets of his plays. Somewhere along the line, however, I omitted to read Betrayal. To be honest, my reading lists often remained in a state of theoretical possibility, due to my intensive studies of the underside of bar tables, gigs and the ceilings of other people's bedrooms. So, I came to the play with new eyes and no prior critical analysis. On first reading, it seemed relatively bland - in fact, this is by no means an uncommon opinion. It's only as you read it more, and perform it, that you realise how complex it truly is.

The story

Briefly, the story is about three characters - Jerry, his best friend Robert, and Robert's wife, Emma. Jerry has had an affair with Emma, which Robert discovers.

Yes, exciting, isn't it? Well, it is. Pinter tells the story in more or less reverse chronological order, so we first meet Jerry and Emma in a pub some two years after their affair has fizzled out. We then move to Jerry's study, where Robert reveals to an unknowing Jerry that he's known about the affair for years, then to Jerry and Emma's rather bleak love nest, where we watch them break up. Scene four sees all three characters in Robert and Emma's house, where a seemingly pointless discussion about babies and then about squash is in fact a series of barbs at Emma.

Scene five opens in a bedroom in Venice, where Robert manipulates Emma into revealing that she's had an affair, as he has discovered a letter from a rather reckless Jerry. Scene six is a week later in the love nest, where Emma fails to reveal to Jerry that Robert knows about the affair. In scene seven, set a few days later in an Italian restaurant, an increasingly drunk Robert struggles with how to handle the knowledge. Scene eight goes back two years, where Emma tells Jerry that she is pregnant by Robert, and the final scene takes us back to 1968 and the evening when Jerry initiates the affair through a drunken declaration of love.

I should also mention the other offstage characters, who hang in the air like ghosts and colour the protagonists' actions - Judith, Jerry's wife; his children, Sam and Sarah; Robert and Emma's children, Charlotte and Ned; and the two writers that both Robert and Jerry somewhat despise, Casey and Spinks.

It reminds me, in a way, of classical Greek tragedy - you have three characters onstage, for a start. You begin the play by knowing what has happened, just as the audience at a play in Athens would have known the story they were watching. Instead, we find out over the course of the play the why and the how of the story. But more of the classical Greek allusion later.

Themes

Obviously, the title is a bit of a giveaway. It's more than betrayal though: arguably, it's about memory and forgetting, unwillingness to face up to the truth or to difficult, painful situations. It's also about what is said in the place of what should really be said, or the absences where words should be. Much of the story resides in silence and pauses and in what the characters actually do (or not, as the case may be) rather than say.

None of the characters come out particularly well: Robert is domineering and misogynistic in the first few scenes, but a reason emerges for that; Jerry is charming, but in the final scene his pursuit of Emma is unsettling at least; and Emma comes across as mysterious and devious: why doesn't she tell Jerry that Robert knew of the affair? Who really is Ned's father? Why does she have the affair in the first place?

It's also a question of who, by the end of the play, is the most betrayed. Robert tells Emma that he's had affairs, but is he telling the truth or just trying to hurt her? Jerry is devastated by finding out that Emma has lied to him for years. Robert's behaviour has, it seems, been predicated by the discovery of his best friend's treachery. The answer to the question, it seems, will vary on who you ask - and the production you watch.

Stage setup, scene changes, lighting and music

As we were a very small group, the director (Adrian Tang) opted for a very simple black box stage with minimal props: one table, a sofa, a bed, a movable curtain track (with curtains that were green on one side and red on the other), a couple of stools and chairs, and another tall curtain track to evoke a window entrance. Scene changes involved all of us moving these various items on or off stage or placing them towards the back. The lighting was equally pared back - light designed to evoke sunlight through a window, or bouncing up off a Venetian canal, for example. an inspired choice was projecting the year on the back of the stage. It all made for fast, economical scene changes that really helped the action along.

The choice of music was fantastic at setting the scenes - A careful selection from the 1960s and 70s that set the mood and indicated the theme throughout.

Performance notes

As I said, I came to the play without any preconceptions, so I looked at Robert with fresh eyes. I deliberately refrained from watching any other performances because I didn't want to be influenced at all - or end up copying someone else's interpretation.

The initial reaction to the character was that he was unpleasant, domineering, manipulative and probably sociopathic. Oh, and a screaming misogynist. So, the first rehearsals saw me play it like that - all uptight and cold. I considered how he'd move, and envisaged a man on stiff, unbending legs - in fact, stiff and cold all over.

As rehearsals went on, however, I noticed how much rage was suffused in Robert's actions and that got me thinking about where that anger was emerging from. I also thought about the lines mentioning his affairs, and realised that he couldn't be that much of a monster, otherwise no one would touch him with a bargepole. He must, then, have a degree of charm about him. In addition, playing him as being stone cold throughout would have been rather two-dimensional: where was his humanity? Why was he so unpleasant at the beginning of the play?

Jerry, in scene one, in reply to Emma revealing Robert's affairs, says '..I never suspected...that there was anyone else...in his life but you.' I took this as a cue to mean that the affairs (if they really happened) only started after Robert's discovery in Venice, and that prior to that, he really did love Emma. Not only that, it meant, it seemed to me, that Robert was a coward when it came to anything emotional. This meant that scene five, rather than being a scene where he emotionally manipulates Emma, actually becomes one where he is almost fatally reluctant to face the truth of Emma and Jerry's betrayal, but has to push on ineluctably, just as Oedipus (in Sophocles) keeps pushing for the truth until it is revealed with truly terrible consequences.

This emotional cowardice makes greater sense of the restaurant scene, where you might expect Robert to confront Jerry, but which instead descend into allusions and a reluctance to confront. Robert realises that his friendship with Jerry is far more important to him than any other relationship, so he decides to protect it through refusing to confront the truth. In scene two, which is chronologically the last scene, his 'Well, it's not very important, is it? Been over for years, hasn't it?' is said almost with relief, that finally the problem is out of the way and they can get on with being friends.

I decided to aim at this vulnerability to create a more rounded character. What emerged was someone who was warmer, funnier - and gentler - than might have been expected. The man scorched by experience in the opening scenes gradually becomes more elastic and open until we see him in the bedroom in scene 9, bouncing into the room where he finds his best friend and his wife, entirely unaware that they have just kissed - indeed, the thought doesn't even cross his mind.

As I said in the last post, I kept finding out more and more about Robert, right up until the last night: different key words emerged and altered how he interacted with the others, but it was his gestures and actions that occasionally caught me by surprise. The way he resignedly filled an almost full glass of wine, for example (and which got a big laugh from the audience), or the way he suddenly struck out a hand and ruffled Jerry's hair in scene 9. The words create the character, but it's the character who says the words - and also, as it were, weaves the silences and pauses.

Given the chance, would I perform it differently? I'm not sure...it's an academic question, as I really won't return to this role, but it was really interesting to watch other performances and, as it were, compare notes. It's striking how often Robert is played as a cold manipulator all the way through, though - and there are definitely lines that I arguably should ave delivered differently. Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how I interpreted Robert.

Leaving him behind, I find that I feel rather sorry for him - he's both adrift in life and stuck in a job he doesn't like, and the shadow of his best friend's betrayal will, I suspect, haunt him for years but he won't ever truly acknowledge the pain. Were he to be a real person (and of course, in my mind he is), he would be eighty years old this year. Would he still be having lunch every week or so with Jerry in an Italian restaurant in central London, or has he retired to Torcello, where he spends his days reading Yeats on the grass?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thoughts on a play.

'It's all, all over.'
Another bucket of Corvo Bianco, please.

I've just come to the end of a run of Harold Pinter's Betrayal at the Progress Theatre in Reading. I performed as Robert, and the play itself received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Needless to say, I was absolutely bloody fantastic - as were my costars, Emma Sterry and Pete Cook, and Mathieu Menard in his cameo as a waiter. In fact, the whole ensemble - director Adrian, SM Tara, Steph, Helen in Wardrobe, and our light and sound guys, Rich and Jon - were brilliant.
Pete Cook as Jerry

Emma Sterry as Emma.

Well, that's my award acceptance speech more or less there.

Now, intermittent readers of this intermittent blog, I can hear your eyebrows creaking upward ever so slightly, as I don't think I mention theatre and acting much here (or previously over on Joy Of Raki). The truth is, I've been away - not just from this blog, but also from performance.

Well, 28 years, to be precise, if you don't count 23 years of standing up in front of people in a classroom, making a prat of myself with the aid of lesson plans. So I am making something of a tentative return to the stage - and this year, I've started with one simple question in my head - Can I actually still act?

The answer, so far, appears to be yes. Well, no one has thrown anything at me yet or stormed out of a performance in a rage, so  I must be doing something right.

But now the play is over, and I feel the mix of elation at a job well done and sadness at the end of the run that I believe most performers feel. It's been a cathartic experience on several levels, and I'm still trying to process it, to understand what the play meant to me and what acting in it meant. That's why I'm writing this post, so I can ruminate.

I joined Progress Theatre in October last year, and performed four roles in two plays, notably as the Father in Liz Carroll's How Do I Love Thee. I also promised to jump out of a plane to raise funds for the theatre, which on reflection seems to be a rather extreme initiation ceremony. I'm jumping on 16th July, by the way, if you'd care to sponsor me. As I said, I wanted to see of I could act, remember lines etc, but it was also a way to find out more about who I am and where I am. Ever since leaving Reading College, I have been beating around, seeking to create a new route for myself - doing writing and editing here, voice overs there, a bit of teaching yonder - and reflecting hard on who I am, the reasons for why things go well or where I bugger things up - and looking back at my roots was a natural part of the process.

Anyway, I also considered what I enjoyed about teaching, and I summarised it as three things:

  1. Helping people learn
  2. Explaining stuff clearly and concisely
  3. Standing up in front of people and making a prat of myself.
I hated the paperwork and internal politics of teaching. The latter, in particular, had become so toxic that it was making me ill, so I really do think that leaving the college was the best thing I could have done, even though things have not been easy.

Through the acting, I find I have discovered much more about myself. Crucially, it has allowed me to face my own painful emotions and feelings (and positive ones, too) in a way that has let me analyse and reassess them without being overwhelmed. I have chronic anxiety issues, and I have a tendency to hide these from myself or ignore them. I'm also adept at disguising them, so this admission may come as a surprise: after all, not only has my professional bread and butter involved standing up in front of rooms full of people, but you'd think the prospect of appearing on a stage was hardly conducive to alleviating stress. The fact is, however, that this anxiety has shaped my life, quite often for the worse, so I need to take it head on and wrest control back - and what better way to do that than through performance?

As a happy bonus, I unexpectedly discovered that I appear to have a decent singing voice, thanks in part to having to sing a hymn in How Do I Love Thee.

After the last show on Saturday night, Emma, being a diligent teacher as well as a fab actress, asked me (and Pete) three questions - What has been the best part of doing this play, what has been the worst, and what has been learned. I was still rather euphoric at that point, not to mention on the verge of being drunk, so my answers were based on my immediate impressions. Having had a few days' thinking time now, I can give a more considered reply.

The best part, without a doubt, was being part of an ensemble that brought the play and the characters to life. We spent hours discussing and analysing words, pauses, silences and motivations, and there is this almost alchemical way in which the characters emerge. The words create the being, then the being utters the words, as it were. Right up to the last night, I was still discovering things about Robert, his motivations, ways of moving, or the way in which words were intoned or stressed, or even the unsaid things, the absences. It was an absorbing process.

The worst part? That's harder to say. I grew frustrated at times at the (necessarily) repetitive nature of rehearsals, but they certainly paid off. I think what was difficult was diminishing the voice of my inner critic and just trusting myself to get on with the task in hand. So, difficult rather than worse. Emotionally, too, I associated the story with my own personal history, and there was no way that I could not face it - and my own faults and omissions. That was tough and often bleak - and sad. It was also needed.

What have I learned? Firstly, that there's always more to learn when it comes to performance, well, anything, really. And that in order to learn, it's better to have a bit of humility - and that is not a weakness at all. 
I also learned that I can act consistently (and, I hope, well), but that it requires having a team around you. I didn't know Emma or Pete (or Mathieu) before we started rehearsing, and I think we were initially a little edgy and uncertain round each other. As we rehearsed, however, we developed that trust we needed, and it raised the game on all our performances.
Talking of trust, I learned that I can and should trust myself much more in novel situations. This is harder to do because of the years of ingrained habit that go very much against this - but this is a subject for a different article.

In summary though, I have to say this was a massively positive and rewarding thing to do, and I feel privileged to have been part of the ensemble that created this.

So what does the future hold? I'm certainly intent on doing more acting. A few other members of the theatre have already approached me about auditioning for various roles, so that's encouraging. The question is whether to plunge headlong into a career I should perhaps have pursued a long, long time ago.

All photos by Aidan Moran.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

An evening with Noam Chomsky

'Is it better to be dumb or clever?'

There was laughter. Professor Noam Chomsky beamed back at us. As he climbed back to his feet and accepted the Visiting Professor Award from Reading University with obvious pleasure and humility, we applauded a lecture that was, as anyone who's seen or read Chomsky, illuminating, interesting and thought-provoking.

I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing this remarkable man last night. Putting aside the content of his lecture for a moment, it's truly remarkable that a man of 88 can stand at a lectern for a hour and deliver a talk with the minimum of notes. I can only hope that I'd be able to do the same when I reach that age. The talk was titled 'Racing for the Precipice', and was concerned with the state of the world. I won't go into too many details, as it was filmed  but in essence it covered the litany of missed opportunities that those in power have had to avoid armed conflict, aggression and the potential demise of humanity through climate change. It was, in many respects, a lament for lost goodness: that those in power, particularly in America (which provided the focus of Professor Chomsky's examination) were interested only in the expression of their power and in nothing else.

He provided some interesting information and commentary about how countries have sought deals to stop aggression and expansion - for example, did you know that Stalin was prepared to sacrifice the fledgling state of East Germany, allowing it to reunify with the West, on the proviso that Germany didn't join NATO? The offer was flatly rejected by the US without consideration. I was struck by what he said about the current brewing conflict with North Korea: 'Perhaps the best way to deal with them is to deal with them - listen to what they want, which is to stop aggression round their borders, for which they'll halt their nuclear program. You don't need a doctorate to do that!' (slightly paraphrased by me)

But what really stuck out for me was something he reiterated several times: That those in power continually disregard the safety and security of their populations in order to accumulate power and wealth in their own hands. Taking an aggressive stance or going to war may win votes, but it renders the very voters who chose it even more vulnerable and their political masters ever more immune to the worries and depredations that follow.

While Chomsky's focus was on war, control, and climate change, following the lecture I couldn't help reflecting on it in the context of domestic politics, and in the light, later on, that the Labour Manifesto had been leaked. I've made no secret of my feelings regarding Brexit - I think it's a disaster for us in the UK, not that I'm over-keen on some of the EU's more centralising instincts, or the manner in which it has behaved towards, for example, Greece. It's clear that a very few wealthy people will not only benefit from a Britain out of Europe, but that they have bankrolled the entire campaign to leave and have wilfully distorted the debate to suit their own ends. See? The accumulation of power in the hands of the few, and a decrease in the security of the many. And what does insecurity breed? Fear. And what does that provoke? Anger, and a desire for greater control....which leads to those who created the situation in the first place getting more control, more power, more wealth. It's the old idea of lobbing a brick through someones's window, then knocking on their door to sell them a burglar alarm. And unfortunately a significant part of the electorate, that's been worn down by financial woes, job insecurity, and fears of war and violence, is buying this up. What they don't seem to realise is that the harder the stance taken by our political leaders, the greater the insecurity, the poorer we become. And as for immigration: Well, it's fairly obvious that it's highly unlikely to drop any time soon - in fact, it's eminently more likely to increase.

Returning to the Labour Manifesto leak and the inevitable frothing howls from the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch's pungent stable of news titles, what we actually have is a document that, by and large, is almost boringly centrist. What's so wrong with tax hikes for the very rich? After all, it would only be a rebalance of distribution - I'll point out that the difference between the amount earned by senior bosses and their workers has swollen grotesquely in the last 30 years (In the 70s, CEOs typically earned about seven times the average salary in their organisation - now, it's typically over THREE HUNDRED times as much). Now, don't get me wrong - being rich isn't a bad thing: It's just there's rich, and then there's pointless obscenity, and that would be the target of this point in the manifesto.

What interested me, and really got the tabloids frothing at the mouth, was the promise to renationalise the railways as the franchises came up for renewal. In one respect, this is a really good idea. After all, privatisation of national resources and key infrastructure has not actually turned out that well, has it? In fact, it has done precisely what Chomsky says about conducting war - it decreases safety and security for the many, while transferring ever increasing amounts of power and wealth to a tiny group of people in control. Surely we should all be in charge of our water and energy supplies and our transport infrastructure and means of steel production, coal mining and so on?

So, can the privatisation genie actually be put back in the bottle? Well, yes, BUT.....the problem is that quite often governments don't know what to do with an industry once it has been nationalised, a bit like a labrador catching a squirrel. Governments are very, very, good, indeed, essential, when it comes to getting large infrastructure projects off the ground and getting it all moving: They're just not very good at administering them. Nationalised industries, I would say, are prone to bureaucratic inefficency, waste and corruption. The latter is particularly an issue where forced renationalistion has taken effect. Venezuela is a case in hand - while nationalising the oil industry had clear short-term benefits for the very poorest, it's fairly obvious that the money is now being siphoned off into the back pockets of the very few. The same could be said for Vladimir Putin's Russia.

It's a tricky one.

And back to the question at the beginning - Professor Chomsky opened his talk with a digression about life on other planets, and quoted a biologist who said that simple life proliferates and is long-lived, while more complex lifeforms are rarer, less successful and tend to die out faster.
This is probably why those who think are so few and far between.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Is it possible we on the Left have missed a crucial redeeming feature in President Trump?

No, it isn't. He's a berserk orange bollock having a temper tantrum.
I win! Bigly! Fake Everything! Sad!

So here's something completely different.

Turn off your radio, turn off your TV, turn off Twitter, turn off Facebook, close your laptop.

Breathe in, nice and deep.

Hold it a while.

Now exhale, letting all your anger, worries and fears go with your breath.

Repeat.

Now stand up, let your arms hang loose and relaxed, then bend down from the waist. Let your arms stay nice and floppy.

Now slowly, gradually, one vertebra at a time, start rising up again. Feel your back stretch and fold and slide into place. When you're standing up straight, raise your chin and look upwards. Imagine you're stretching for the sky and raise your arms, reaching out to their fullest extent. Imagine yourself as a tree in new summer light, your feet reaching deep into the earth, your fingers brushing the air.

Breathe again, and expand into the moment: Make yourself as tall and as wide as possible.

And exhale, keep your head held high and let your arms swing down. Give them a little shake.

Now step outside. Walk. Take your shoes off if you want or if you can. Get lost in the woods, or go find the first flowers of Spring. Stand in a crowd of people and silently wish each person you see 'May you be well. May you be happy.'

Stand on a hill and consider the sky. If it's a clear night, lose yourself in the treasure chest of the heavens, and consider that every single bit of you began in the heart of an unimaginable explosion that caused all space and time to come into being, that every atom in you was born in the heart of a star, that you are the very fabric of the universe, that you are, in fact, the universe made sentient, and you are witnessing yourself as your story unfolds across the years and the distances. Consider that what we think of as life is too, too brief, but that it is, or can be, glorious.

Go and tell someone you love them.

Go do something random.

Go do something audacious. And don't worry about being afraid - that's OK: understand why you're afraid, and you'll never be ruled by it.

Above all, be you. Be the best you that you can possibly be.

And that's the way we defeat the shouters, the haters, the false and the pernicious - by rising up, moving on and knowing there is more to us that our own individual voices.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Top Trumps?

So, farewell, Barack Obama: As many have already said, we're all going to miss your cool, unruffled presidency. Your farewell speech was gracious, calm and generous. It struck the tone that a President should: inclusive, hopeful, helpful and slightly detached.

OK folks, I hope you've got your safety belts on now, as it looks as if we're in for one hell of a ride....

I watched Mr Trump's Press conference today.

If I'm being generous, it is best described as being markedly different in tone from Mr Obama's valediction.

If I'm being honest, it was the most jaw-dropping, godawful, car crash of a press briefing I have ever seen.

You don't want to hear what my opinion would be if I were to be negative.

I really don't know where to begin with it. You may have noticed that this post is beginning to read like a theatre review, and that is because it is, in a way. This was Trumpian Theatricality at its darkest and most brutal.

It started with an angry little round man saying angry things because Buzzfeed published a dossier that alleged a, er, shower of salacious and damning details against Mr Trump. This heated little blast was, however, the mere prelude to what was to come, as the Great Man swaggered forth to hold court.

Well, he can walk the walk, but he most certainly can't talk the talk. Now, it may be that Mr Trump is merely deeply uncomfortable with public speaking, mad as THAT may sound. However, I've always noticed that people who are, at some visceral level, terrified of facing a large audience, will quite often resort to Attack Dog Mode, and become really rather vicious in their speech.

Now, this is me being generous, because it would a) explain Mr Trump's rally style and b) mitigate in part this really very, very bad press conference.

Alternatively, it could all be explained by saying that he is an overbearing bully with a fragile ego, but I'll leave you to make up your own minds on that one.

I had difficulty following what he was saying - not because he was using densely worded, impeccably logical arguments and laying out his policies to the nth degree of finesse, but because it was as if he had got a chimpanzee to write his speech notes.

And then he had thrown them in the air.

And then he'd scrawled over them with his special crayons.

You expect a degree of coherence in a speech, whether it's in a high school debate or at a company's general meeting, or indeed in a State of The Union address. This had nothing of the kind. it lacked direction. It lacked finesse. It meandered, contradicted itself, withered on the arid plain of rhetoric.

When it came to answering questions from the media. it was the same - it was clear Mr Trump wasn't going to answer a thing, except where it somehow latched on to whatever idea was banging around his cranial cavity at that point.

Then he walked off, and his attorney started droning out what were, in effect, the Terms and Conditions of The Product Known as The Trump Presidency.

I really hope you didn't Click to Agree and Proceed.

Following this dull interlude, Mr Trump returned to take more questions and pour more of his fetid, barren ideas over the assembled press.

It wasn't just the paucity of ideas. It wasn't just the contradictions and obfuscations. It wasn't just the evidence of an extraordinarily limited vocabulary range. What made this briefing truly appalling was Mr Trump's attitude, which could not, with the best will in the world, be called presidential.

He was petulant, defiant, bragging: 'I won'. That's what this is all about. He won.

That's why, apparently, he sees no need to divest from his business interests or reveal his tax information.

He won.

Top Of The World, Ma!

Mr Trump has no real interest in the presidency per se, except inasmuch as it aggrandises him and makes him feel like King Of The World. He is no real leader. He is, on the evidence of this, really a rather lonely, insecure and very, very small man.

Now, I doubt he's ever likely to read this, but this would be the advice I'd give him now: OK, you won. Well done. You're a winner. Here's a certificate and medal you can stick on the fridge door. Now, it's all going to get a bit tricky in a while, so why don't you resign as soon as decently possible? You could cite ill health or something. Then you could get back to doing what you love best - building vulgar hotels and losing your father's wealth - while us grown ups get down to the job of healing the gaping wounds in the world that have been opened by the events of the past few years.

Off you toddle.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Where's Jezza?

Autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when people of a certain bent turn their minds to party political conferences.....


You don't - can't -  expect much sense from Conference season. After all, they're basically big freebie jamborees for the converted: It pretty much doesn't matter what you say from the podium, you'll get a cheer.

Having said that, what has been emanating from the Conservative Party Conference would be genuinely jaw-dropping in the breadth of its inanity, asinine attitudes, and dementedly cheerful willing capacity to ignore basic truths, were it not for the fact that Brexit has inured us all to such lunacy.

Look at what's been said: We will essentially cut the continent off from the mainland; Africa is, according to Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, a country; the future of the poor will be picking fruit for the rich; we can sell English Air to the Chinese; We'll train more doctors and kick the foreign ones out by 2020 (I'll point out that it takes six to seven years to train as a doctor), or maybe 2025 by the latest if we really like you; And as for rich foreign students, well, there'll be fewer of them and they can only do approved courses at approved universities - though who or what will deign a course to be worthy of study, or what constitutes a 'proper' university is not mentioned.

Add in the fact that the two-year negotiation process to leave the EU will start, apparently, in March 2017, that this process will work entirely in the favour of the EU, and will almost beyond a shadow of a doubt lead to the withdrawal of the financial Passport from The City and other financial institutions, and you can hear something.

Can you hear it?

That's right, the deafening silence of nobody beating a path to our door.

The Conservative Party Conference has set out its vision for the future of this country, and it turns out to be one that is pallid, grey, monolingual, aged and unfit for purpose. There is no vibrancy to this vision, just a tired reliance on old tropes an outmoded images of a past that never existed. It is one that is fearful-  of the world, of the future, of those from any other background other than a misshapen concept of what The English are.

Note I say 'The English' rather than include the Welsh, Scots and Irish- that's because this whole farrago is peculiarly English in inception and execution.
And then there's another peculiarity - another deafening silence: The protest-shaped hole where Labour should be.

Where the hell is Jeremy Corbyn? Where are the voices of the Left? They should be tearing lumps out of the Conservatives right now, yet can't seem to make a dent.

What is happening?

Now, I like Jeremy Corbyn: He's principled and steadfast in those principles. He has a clear political philosophy and sticks to his guns. He's also an advocate of scrupulous politeness and respect within political dialogue.

But.....the trouble is, he's just not very effective. And importantly, he doesn't seem to be able to lead his party right now, just when we need it.

Is this a failing? Well, yes, obviously - but the fact is that all political lives are, in essence, doomed to fail in one way or another: All political discourse requires collaboration and compromise. I suspect conviction politicians have a bit of difficulty in getting their heads round this concept. You see, it's all very well having the moral high ground, but if you then refuse to engage in order to keep your ethics pristine and nothing changes as a consequence (or gets worse), then you are just as morally compromised as your opponent, no matter the height of your ethical hillock. It seems, unfortunately, that Jeremy is determined to be seen as being right, rather than doing right, to the detriment of us all.

Right now, we need another voice calling out the bland lunacies of the Conservatives for what they are, but we don't have one. For the sake of our countries, for the sake of our future, we need to give a counterblast to this arid unhappy vision being laid out in Birmingham.

And the really depressing thing?

It's still only Tuesday.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Er...where's my voice?

It has been, to put it mildly, one hell of a time in politics.


As I write, Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the contest to be the next Prime Minister, leaving Theresa May unopposed; and David Cameron has announced that Ms. May will take over on Wednesday evening. He must have one hell of a good removals company - it usually takes months to move house, but he appears to be going with extraordinary expeditiousness. It's almost as if he'd been planning this months ago...

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the chamber, Angela Eagle has announced she will challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. Just when we needed a united main opposition party the most, we find that once again we're back to the bad old eighties, and the Tories' capacity for holding onto power no matter the cost comes into play.

And while the chicanery and treachery continue in Westminster, all the rest of us are trying to get on with our lives, and I'm sure that I'm not alone in the feeling that we are being ignored: We've had our little fun with the referendum, now we're expected to wait for our betters to recreate the political landscape around them for their benefit.

Sorry, I'm not having it.

Dear reader, I'd like to make a suggestion. Maybe it's a daft one, and it's certainly something for the long term, but this seems like a time for ideas, ANY ideas, as our honourable representatives do not, at the time of writing, appear capable of finding their honourable bums with a map.

I'll start with a question: Who do you trust to represent you and voice your needs?

Another: Why do you trust them?

A third: When did you sign the contract that permitted that person to make decisions for you?

Now, we live, apparently, in a political system that relies on consensus and trust, in very much the same way that we trust that the bits of paper and metal in our pockets are commonly agreed to be money, and have a redeemable value (have you seen how Sterling's doing, by the way?).

Yet it strikes me that that consensus and trust have been severely eroded, not merely by the last few weeks, but going right back to 2003 and the invasion of Iraq. Last week, we saw the entirely unedifying spectacle of Tony Blair trying to explain away the dripping gobbets of blood that trail from his hands.

This erosion has become so bad that we must, in some way, rebuild it. Here's one way: a kind of Power of Attorney.

Let me explain. If you've got older or incapacitated relatives, you may well have one of these. In essence, Power of Attorney allows you to make decisions on behalf of someone else. It's a relatively simple legal instrument.

Why don't we apply this to voting? Currently, it's tradition and custom that allow our vote to count towards giving a politician our mandate to speak on our behalf. Yet tradition and custom are no guarantor of legality. Just because something is customary doesn't make it correct: Slavery was (is!) a custom; so is FGM.

Now, before you blanch at this, I'm not suggesting that everyone has to read and sign some massive wad of documents. Instead, I suggest that, by voting, you have in effect agreed to the putative MP being your representative. YES, I know that sounds remarkably like what we already have, but here's the catch: They are legally required to represent your views - and legally required to honour all commitments laid out in their manifesto. Should they not do so, then they are to be held in breach of contract, and therefore a new election, whether local or general, would be triggered.

By introducing a legal element to this process, we can achieve two good targets. The first is that political parties (or groups representing certain views in a referendum) would be held directly and legally accountable for the policies they claim to represent. Secondly, it invites the voter to be more closely involved in the process by actually reading what their party of choice stands for. You get more responsible politics and a more politically educated electorate at a stroke.

See? Not bad, is it?

Of course, it probably doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell of being actioned, seeing as the last thing our politicians want is an educated electorate.