Saturday, 13 November 2010

Problems in Pangbourne

Many years ago, I went to the National Theatre to see Coriolanus. It was a preview, so I had no idea what to expect from the production. Unusually, I was going with friends who had taken the opportunity to book low-priced “stage seats,” with no idea what this might mean.

We arrived in our smart work clothes and were ushered onto the stage. At once our role became clear. I remember Peter declaring loudly, “I can't be mob in this tie” as he undid his tie and stuffed it in his suit pocket.

We were indeed cast as mob. From where we sat, stood or at times, were herded round the stage, we fell into the role quite easily. As Coriolanus, Ian McKellen unleashed his venomous contempt in our direction. At times we felt vulnerable, particularly when swords were unsheathed. But we were happy to join in the calls of our leaders: “The people are the city.” From where we stood or sat it seemed like a call for justice and democracy – and Coriolanus hated it.

The rest of the audience hated it too. The people in stalls and circle of the Olivier Theatre were on Coriolanus's side. Often, when you're on a stage, the emotions of the audience are palpable. It was like that then, even though we weren't really members of the cast. I felt a great wave of anger and hatred rolling towards us from the body of the auditorium. We were in a Shakespeare play, we were audience but we were getting it wrong – this play wasn't intended for the angry, demanding mob.

I was reminded of that experience as I reflected on my reaction to Amy's View at Nottingham Playhouse. I've been hesitant about describing this because the play provided so much that I want from the theatre. It was excellently acted and I don't think it could have been better directed. Everything was right from the pictures on the walls of the set to the piano music between scenes - I wish I knew what it was. It was a play by a living playwright who did his best to take women's lives seriously. At its centre were questions about culture, politics and economics.

And yet … though I laughed in all the right places, the play didn't speak to me. Most of the theatre-goers were having a lovely time. I felt like an intruder from the wrong background. I didn't belong in the posh house in Pangbourne where most of the debates took place. Had I been there, I'd have been working in the pub (offstage) or hanging out with the cleaners and gardeners who must have been employed to keep the rich people's rooms in pristine order. I started wondering where ordinary people lived and realised that, for the playwright and most of the audience, the people on stage were ordinary.

There was something odd about the on-stage discussions. The play involves long and often funny debates about the merits of theatre (good) versus film and TV (bad). It's plain which side the audience is supposed to be on. The representative of modernity is a dodgy young man who doesn't go to the theatre. He's a bastard in both the literal and metaphorical sense and this is plainly supposed undermine the views he expresses. He's also the only character on stage with a regional accent.

The young man insists theatre is dead and that the masses – or the mob – are on his side. Theatre-goers are hardly likely to agree. But at times the argument and scenario are so heavily skewed against him that I wanted to offer my support. In that setting I might even have cheered Kelvin McKenzie or Rupert Murdoch. I'd have felt I had more in common with them than the secure and unworried defenders of theatre.

Of course, worries do intrude. Since the days of Aeschylus drama has demanded reversals of fortune. But I was untouched by the characters' miseries. Certainly bad things happened to them but it was always plain that someone would provide food, home and subsistence. Even massive catastrophe doesn't mean destitution. The sort of disasters that threaten most people are a good deal worse than that.

On one level it was a good evening at the theatre, if a strangely isolating one. I always like watching good acting and laughing at well-timed jokes. But it's odd to feel alienated by a defence of live theatre, which I've loved for as long as I can remember. I wanted something wilder, more connected with a world I recognize as mine – perhaps something as angry as the plays of Peter Barnes or Edward Bond. I'd have liked excitement – the kind of confused physical and intellectual response I had to a student production of Sergeant Musgrave's Dance when the gun was trained on the audience. Perhaps a production of Blasted would have reminded me of the strengths of live theatre. I don't know. Productions of Sarah Kane have yet to reach the East Midlands.

Watching Amy's View gave me a sense of exclusion. Theatre tickets used to say on the back “The management reserves the right to refuse admission.” Sometimes, when I was young, I would worry that a theatrical management would tell me to go away because I didn't belong – that I'd dressed wrong, didn't understand the ways of theatre-goers, that theatres weren't meant for working-class children like me. Of course it never happened. By now I know I look and sound as if I belong.

The ever-hospitable staff at Nottingham Playhouse took my money, helped me choose the best available seat at the price I selected and treated me like a guest. The actors performed well in the play which David Hare wrote. It was the play itself which refused me admission.

I may be a theatre-lover but I know my place. I'm mob.

"The pity of war"

Shakespeare's Othello is a soldier. He had killed his opponents in face-to-face combat and ordered others to kill. This is what gives him value in Venice. He is defined as a Moor and, while it's not clear quite what Shakespeare meant by this in terms of race, it makes one thing plain: away from his military role, Othello is an outsider. His family comes from elsewhere. He has one memento of his mother: a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries – and he has given this to Desdemona, the woman he loves and his new wife. Apart from that, he is as absorbed as he can be by his military role – until his meeting with Desdemona, the army has taken the place of family affections and loyalties. Of course he trusts his comrades in arms but he is their general. He is unprepared for their jealousy or scheming.

Often in Shakespeare's plays I find a single repeated word that seems to provide a guide to one of the themes of the play. In Othello, that word is pity. Speaking of his growing love for Desdemona as he recognized her love for him, Othello declares that he perceived her growing love when she heard the tale of his life and found it “wondrous pitiful.” He continues: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them.”

Pity returns with renewed force when Othello is finally, wrongly convinced of Desdemona's infidelity. He cries out to the soldier who has deceived him, “But yet, the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it ...” At the end of the play, Othello, seeing Desdemona asleep in the bed where he will strangle her, is almost overcome by pity. But instead he does what he believes his honour requires – he strangles her. Then, realising too late that he was deceived, he kills himself.

I wonder if Wilfred Owen had that famous cry of Othello in mind when he coined his famous phrase “the pity of war.” He used it twice: in his poem “Strange Meeting” and in the roughly-drafted preface he sketched out for a collection of poems. He listed the topics that his poems would avoid – they include, heroes, glory and honour. Instead he states baldly: “My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

Wilfred Owen's attitude to war was inconsistent. At times he enjoyed battle – he wrote of one conflict “I lost my earthly faculties and fought like an angel.” He collected at least one souvenir from a dead German: a blood-spattered handkerchief which he sent as a present to his young brother. Yet he also wrote “I am a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience.”

Owen's attitude was typical of many soldiers in the First World War and later conflicts. Sometimes they were frightened, sometimes they suffered, sometimes they killed and sometimes they exulted in the sufferings of others. The same men who performed heroic actions could abuse prisoners, enjoy slaughter and then endure acute pain stoically. Soldiers, like Othello, need pity. So do the civilians and the friends and families of soldiers.

I'm uncomfortable about war memorials which urge us to honour “our glorious dead.” War isn't about glory. It's about people who are trained to kill carrying out orders. Sometimes they are killed. Plenty of civilians – including children – are killed and maimed by soldiers every year. The soldiers who survive have to live with what they did and what was done to them.

First World War soldiers often found a strange dissonance between the experience of trench warfare and the myth of heroism, honour and glory to which they returned on leave. We seem to be creating similar myths. “I don't care how you wear your poppy, so long as you wear your poppy with pride,” the British Legion's representative declared on TV. Soldiers – all soldiers – are routinely referred to as “heroes.” It's seen as bad taste to mention episodes of warfare that aren't heroic. Whatever horrors are committed by other countries' soldiers, we're supposed to believe that British soldiers never, ever behave like that.

It's strange. There's little support for this centuries' wars but the public tends to support the army and cheers the homecoming soldiers as heroes. Every so often we're asked to feel sorry for the soldiers and how they suffer – and I do pity them.

But soldiers are more than suffering heroes. They have inner lives and consciences. They are also trained killers and, although it's not often mentioned, many of them kill people. The people they kill are not always soldiers.

I've no wish to condemn the soldiers. I don't wish to be in their position – and, if I were, I expect that, for all my pacifism, I would end by acting in much the same way but with less efficiency. Soldiers deserve something more honest than a myth of heroism and glory.

Another brave soldier-poet, Keith Douglas, who fought in the Battle of El Alamein, looked coolly at himself as a killer and at the corpses of those he killed. In his poem “Vergissmeinicht” (Forget-me-not) he returns to the scene of a tank battle three weeks afterwards and finds the dead body of a soldier he killed. The emotions of the British soldiers are not pleasant; they see the abused and decaying body “almost with content.” But the discovery of a picture of the dead man's girlfriend reminds the poet that the dead man was not only a killer. The poem ends:

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

The pity of war indeed. The pity of it.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Transit camps for the poor

Growing up in our block of flats, there were always small tasks for children. I had slim, flexible wrists and was in demand whenever a neighbour accidentally let the front door slam behind her and found that she was locked out. I could slide my fore-arm through the letter-box and, using a hooked kitchen utensil, pull the inside door handle down until the door opened again. Sometimes I'd be offered sixpence as a reward but I was sufficiently well-schooled by my parents to refuse it, unless the neighbour was particularly existence. Helping out was a way of life.

Often someone would run out of a basic food. I would be given a cup to ask the neighbours if we could borrow flour or sugar, with the promise to return it the next day. Back then, the shops shut at 5.30 and shopping was a daily activity. Best of all was running out of milk. Only one of our neighbours had a fridge and borrowing milk meant drinking milk that was icy instead of room temperature or, in a hot summer – and despite our efforts to cool by evaporation in a sink full of water – not far from going off.

I don't recall envying the wealthier neighbours. I enjoyed the excitement of rummaging through jumble sales for books, ornaments and clothes (my order of priorities). I would have liked a holiday and wished my mother could have better shoes – but she insisted her canvas plimsoles were comfortable and children are apt to take parents' reassurances at face value. Mum did her best to convince us that holidays were boring, though Butlin's sounded terrifically exciting. Instead we had Sunday school outings and days out roaming Putney Heath, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. Sometimes we walked as far as Kew Gardens or took advantage of our cheap tube fares to explore London's (mostly free) sights and museums. There were always books, libraries and sometimes theatre trips to Shakespeare in the parks or plays, musicals and ballet from the gods of the nearby theatres.

As a small child I observed and marvelled at all kinds of glamour: I remember golden beehive hairstyles, possibly tinted by the hairdresser, and stiletto heels. One neighbour invited us for drinks at Christmas and we sat nervously in her pristine living room where she offered a choice of tea, squash and Bristol cream. (Mum disapproved of the sherry - she thought it the first step to alcoholism). Usefully, one neighbour acquired a telephone and gave us all his number for use in emergency. We were instructed in the routine of the phone box – when to press button A and button B – and learnt to deliver a quick message in ten seconds should we depend on the return of twopence for the bus fare home. The telephone and fridge-owner even had a small car. He worked as a chauffeur and once, resplendent in his chauffeur's uniform, gave me a lift into central London. I'll never forget how he stood and saluted as I emerged from his small grey morris minor.

I suppose we were still in the post-war atmosphere and believed we were “all in it together,” whatever “it” was. Linked by our need for council houses, we were a surprising jumble of people: young couples with children, older people, respectable types who had lost homes in the war, ex-servicemen and women, refugees (some with numerical tattoos we didn't mention), people with shady pasts. There was a loving father who occasionally vanished into jail for a few months. One glamorous woman was said to be “on the game” but “a very good mother..” There were loving marriages and couples who fought. Being a child, I probably missed a great deal – it was more exciting to explore “the woods,” “the bomb-site,” to “go trespassing” and to dream of the big adventure of going down the steps of the underground air-raid shelter. I needed occasional risks - children do when they feel secure.

I still visit my parents in the council estate where I grew up. I don't get there often enough and these days I feel like an outsider. The atmosphere has changed – we're no longer in the post-war world, in which progress was taken for granted. At some point during my childhood a council house ceased to be a badge of respectability and “council tenant” became a term of abuse. Perhaps the upper middle classes needed someone new to fear and despise. Or perhaps they always did fear and despise people like me and I didn't know it. I remember the rants in the press about the evils of tower blocks - I loved and still love the high-rise block in which I lived – and the new acquaintances who examined me for evidence of neurosis or criminality, if they didn't (as some did) cut me dead on discovering where I lived. At around that time, people on the estate seemed to lose a certain self-confidence. It didn't help to know that an address might disqualify you for a desired job. I was assured, by people who didn't know my background, that council tenants were stupid, ignorant and never read books, went to museums or walked in London parks. I was told that people like me were vandals, racists, criminals and scroungers who didn't care to know right from wrong. The transition from home to wider society was uneasy. I learnt to keep quiet about my background and to mimic the nonchalance of the rich.

There was a shortage of council homes in London. For a while councils bought up big houses in wealthy areas and converted them into flats. Then the policy changed. Under Mrs Thatcher, tenants were encouraged to buy, at a substantial discount, and councils were not allowed to spend the proceeds on further council homes. We were to become a home-owning society. My parents, who had paid more than the value of their flat to the council in thirty years of renting, took advantage of the discount and used Dad's redundancy pay to buy their flat. While the policy as a whole seemed dodgy, I was glad for them. There were voices on the extreme right of the tory party suggesting that tenants with spare rooms should be moved. After bringing up a son and a daughter in a 2-bedroom flat, Mum and Dad finally had a little extra space – a room where their children and, eventually, their grandchildren, could bed down for the night.

There's more to that flat than extra space. Mum and Dad, who are still there and approaching their nineties, know the neighbours. They visit a familiar GP and are greeted by adults who remember Mum from the days she worked as an infant helper at the local primary school. The bus drivers recognize and lower the platform on the bus so that Mum can get on without difficulty. The views are the familiar views of Richmond Park. It's changed a little from my childhood by storms and the fall of trees. There are no longer sheep in the park and I don't know if the parrots who arrived in the 1980s survived the last harsh winter. But you can still hear the bark of foxes at night and the rough call of rutting stags. Sometimes you can look down on a hawk as it stoops for prey. When I stay there in summer I'm often woken by the rowdy clamour of the dawn chorus. It all brings back memories – memories cherished by my parents who have now lived there more than fifty years.

The sale of council houses brought changes, of course. Flats were the least popular part of the council's housing stock. It wasn't just the contempt in which tower-block dwellers are held which caused that. Anyone buying a flat has to contribute to maintenance, repairs, renovations and upgrades for the block as a whole – my parents had to put money aside for bills which can run into thousands or tens of thousands. So far they've managed. They are secure in their home with their memories.

Other neighbours bought, then sold and moved away. Tenants died and were replaced with new tenants. Suddenly individual and families on the council house waiting list needed more than inadequate housing to qualify and reach the head of the list. Desperation helped. So did illness or personal disaster. The shortage of council houses made it harder for relatives to live near one another – grown-up sons and daughters sometimes stayed as tenants or carers but many found themselves driven from London. I have a four-hour journey each way when visiting my parents and that's not unusual. I still feel comfortable on the estate. The sight of library, maisonettes and tower blocks among the trees tells me I'm coming home.

Now even faster change is arriving. It sounds as though the Big Society will mean higher rents, lower income for people on housing benefit (some of whom work at several jobs for low wages) and insecure tenancies. People who can't find work for a year will be punished by a cut in housing benefit, although their housing will be no cheaper. Rents are set to rise to 80% of the private equivalent rent – and in London that will be high if the housing shortage continues to contribute to landlords' profiteering.

It all worries me but it's the insecurity that nags at me most. If council houses are allotted only for a short period and, as has been suggested, those who are luckier with pay or promotion are rewarded with eviction, there will be no chance for a mixed community to grow. At the same time, the jobless – and the latest projections suggest unemployment is about to rise by 1.6 million – may also be punished by eviction as their housing benefit falls. Will they join the council outposts in Slough or Hastings, where cheaper landlords are said to be offering bulk bed-and-breakfast accommodation for the needy and homeless?

If all this happens, children growing up now on the council estate where I lived will never have the secure childhood I had. Their parents will take less pride in their homes as they wait to be moved on. If they are cautious and anxious they will save any spare pennies and pounds for the cost of the move and the demands of the next home. They will hesitate to root themselves in a community of temporary dwellers. Schools and doctors will see pupils and patients who pass through and never settle for education or care.

I'm concerned for all who live on the estate where I was so happy. I fear that these policies will swell a tide of anger and despair, leading at times to wide, directionless anger. I know how I feel when my security is threatened – and how my anger is trebled when those I love are at risk.

I fear that my parents, who still take pride in their flat and its views, will wake one morning to find themselves marooned in a transit camp for the poor.