Sunday, 29 June 2008


It's not my failure to complete any of my planned tasks that has sparked depression. Like many people, I seem to be suffering mild depression because of the ... er ... depression.

I don't know if this is officially an economic depression or recession or downturn. I note that shares have dropped dramatically in value over the past fortnight and that prices have risen.

Shareholding is an odd system by which people gamble on the profits of companies in which they need have no interest as either worker or consumer. A company may pay its workers well and gain their enthusiastic loyalty while pleasing all its customers with well-made, cherished goods. It may even produce a small, steady return for investors. But once it's launched on the stock exchange, it's not valued by these simple standards. It has to keep increasing profits and put on a good show for shareholders. Its so-called value will depend on rumours and the way in which shares are sold among people who have no interest in the company's employees or the people who buy its products. The rules of the stock exchange seem much the same as the rules of the bookmaker - but there's a big difference. The stock exchange is less honest about the gamble involved. It has the facade of respectability but is more dangerous than the bookie. Its effects can be felt by people who never gamble but simply do their job the best of their ability. At its best, the stock market allows people with no direct interest in the business of a company to determine its direction. Usually their decisions are based solely on the company's ability to produce dividends and the value of the shares, which isn't necessarily related to the company's dividends.

When I think of it like this, it's hard to care much when the value of shares falls. But indirectly we are all share owners. Companies on which we depend - banks, insurance firms, business, pension funds - own shares and the crazy gamble in the stock market affects us all.

We're being affected by many economic factors. Producers and manufacturers are putting up their prices. The west is used to controlling prices. The big supermarkets are used to paying low for goods and competing with one another - although some have admitted occasionally getting together to fix some higher prices, which is illegal. At the same time, supermarkets pose as the friends of the poor, which usually means ignoring the welfare of overseas workers or animals in order to sell cheap food, clothes, etc. When they strike this pose, it's work taking a look at their profits. In 2006-7, Tesco's pre-tax profits were more than £2.5 billion. (I can't find more recent figures.) Supermarkets do rather better for directors and shareholders than for the poor.

Meanwhile, like most people, I have to decide how to live through this depression. Luckily I don't like shopping (except for stationery and in good bookshops) and have never believed in retail therapy. I'm lucky that my nearest shop is a small Co-op - when I have to shop, I like small shops, market stalls and co-operatively owned stores. The Co-op is a consumer co-op while Waitrose - part of the John Lewis partnership - is owned by its workers. I'll continue to shop through the organic box scheme I use, which delivers weekly and saves me the trouble of thinking much about shopping. The prices look high, but the quality if good and I'm saved the temptation of impulse buys in supermarkets. To my surprise, I find I'm saving money by using the box scheme as I'm managing purchases more sensibly and wasting far less.

I've the advantage of having been poor in the past. I've shopped at jumble sales - perhaps they'll make a come-back now - and devised cheap, nutritious recipes. I can mend and darn clothes if I must, though I don't like doing it. I know it's possible to have a good day out in free museums and galleries with a pack of sandwiches for lunch. And for the moment I have a good income, even if it feels over-stretched and repairs to the house are beyond me.

I haven't enjoyed watching the extravagance of the past few years. I understand and share people's love of travel and their enjoyment of eating out - but for many people these have become an expected part of life rather than a delightful luxury or special treat. Cheap flights are damaging the planet. Perhaps I'm a puritan - it worries me that people shop for things they neither need nor want, that they go to films and shows they don't expect to enjoy, that they have grown used to the deference of waiters. I grew up thinking that luxury meant ice cream or cake for tea or a seat or standing place in the theatre gallery.

The recent rush to luxury was fuelled by Britain's dangerous shift from a manufacturing and agricultural economy to a service economy in which workers sell luxury goods and services to one another. This makes Britain particularly vulnerable to economic depression. Expensive luxuries are the first things people will give up. Nail bars, restaurants and coffee shops are vulnerable. The situation is made worse by the way debt has been marketed as a solution to all ills. Our luxury economy has been funded by people living way beyond their means.

I recently answered a question on the best advice my mother gave me. She told me it was worth missing a meal to buy a theatre ticket because I'd forget the missed meal and live for ages off the pleasure of the show. She was right. I'll be finding real pleasures to see me through this depression - if it ever ends. I'll be up in the gods when I can afford it, seeing concerts and plays. I'll be visiting free galleries and museums and really looking - taking all the pleasure I can from a visit. I'll try to find time to cycle and walk in parks and by the river and look at the scenes. And I'll probably continue fencing once a week. It's cheaper than most people think. So long as my kit holds out, it works out at less than £2.50 per session. I reckon I can afford that.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Things to do

"Are you on holiday yet?" acquaintances ask.

Friends know better but even they assume that this is a quiet time of year for me. I wish it were. The "to do" list lengthens every day and any spare time must be spent on the house, if I can summon the energy.

Just getting on with jobs on the "to do" list would be good. Many of them would be enjoyable if I weren't so tired, and even housework might make enough of a difference for me to feel I'd achieved something after a few hours. But I'm continually held up by computer problems. I've been suffering from advice that doesn't always make sense. For instance, explaining problems with the screen of my borrowed laptop, I'm faced with the response that it must in some way be my fault.

"It's because you've dropped it," I'm told. I didn't drop it. Then, "You've downloaded Firefox. Why did you do that? Who said you could? You shouldn't download strange programmes. They always affect the computer. That's why the screen has gone black. Why didn't you stick with Explorer?"

I try to explain and, after a while, give up. Mostly the borrowed laptop works - every so often it stalls and takes yet more of my time. I begin to wonder if life was easier before computers.

Still, I know what I have to do this weekend. I have to spring-clean the house. Yes, I know it's past midsummer but spring was busy - and winter and autumn and all last year. And I'm giving a short talk at work which requires research - rather more than I anticipated. So I should reread the Bacchae of Euripides and, for the first time, the whole of Cervantes' Don Quixote. I've only read bits before. If I can do all that this weekend I'll be more or less on schedule.

I started Don Quixote on the train home - page 47 already. 800 or so pages to go. It's a lovely old Penguin edition with the price on the cover: 8/6.

I think I need a Sancho Panza to do the housework. I think I need more than a weekend.

In Marlowe's play of Doctor Faustus, Faustus quotes Ovid's Amores, begging that his last night will last longer: "O lente lente currite noctis equi!" (Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night). Time moves at its usual speed and the night comes to an end.

I expect the weekend will end before I've finished half the tasks I've intended.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

When I was much younger, I occasionally took part in Reclaim the Night marches. One of the favourite chants was "However we dress, wherever we go,/ Yes means yes and no means no." It was a simple message but objectors frequently assured me that life wasn't as simple as that because women didn't actually say what they meant. Some added that women didn't know what they wanted anyway. At the extreme end of the anti-feminist brigade were the men who would declare that women liked being raped and that Reclaim the Night marchers were angry and soured because they hadn't been.

I've been reminded of those attitudes by some of the responses to the result of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty. As the politicans campaigned and debates took place, almost everyone assumed the Irish would vote Yes to the new Treaty. It was only on the eve of poll that I noted a little doubt in the commentators' voices. Then the Irish voted No. The majority was between 7 and 8 %. so there wasn't any room for doubt. Or so I thought.

Suddenly there was a string of European spokesmen (and all but one I heard were men) talking on TV and radio and to any journalists who would listen, explaining that no didn't really mean no but something else entirely. "It's not about Europe or the Lisbon treaty," one French speaker explained. "It's about the voters' attitude to the Irish government." He went on to explain that the result could therefore be disregarded or, if necessary, the Irish people could be asked to vote again and again - until they got it "right."

I don't know why the Irish people voted as they did, although they seem to have had access to a great range of relevant information, including the text of the Treaty. But their reasons for voting No don't matter. If, in an election, I chose to vote for a member of the Monster Raving Loony Party because he used my favourite brand of toothpaste, my motivation might be regarded as strange. But no-one would have the right to take my vote and re-assign it to the Green Party candidate on the grounds that the Green Party had more sensible policies. As long as I am eligible to vote, my vote should be counted. And it's not for anyone else to re-assign my vote on the grounds that I should have voted in a different way.

The Irish referendum can have only one result. The Lisbon Treaty cannot be adopted. The current rules of the European Community require all member states to endorse major changes. The Irish constitution as interpreted by the highest courts in Ireland declares that such major changes to national sovereignty can be decided only in a referendum. Spokesmen can condemn the Irish people as stupid and ungrateful (I have heard such epithets) but the pro-Europeans who use such terms betray the best ideals of the European Union. If it is to succeed, the European Union must respect the views of all nations involved. It mustn't become a community of bullies and it certainly mustn't ignore legal and democratic requirements.

Pro-Europeans should be encouraging a proper debate on what Europe is for and how it is run. A British referendum would have provided a good opportunity to explore all manner of anxieties, from the question of sovereignty to anxieties about fraudulent use of expenses. But although Britain was promised a referendum on the constitution, we were assured none was necessary for the Lisbon Treaty. Sometimes being a British voter feels like being a woman in Britain before women got the vote. I could almost hear government spokesmen saying, "Don't bother your pretty little head about that, my dear."

There are big issues to discuss about Europe and everyone should be encouraged to think them through. When the constitution was debated - and rejected in France and the Netherlands - I learnt about issues that weren't discussed in the British press, so far as I could see. There were debates on the possible effects of a free market in Labour - would it kill off the minimum wage? And questions were raised about the role of the European Central Bank, which was to have the status of a nation and a right of veto over legislation.

Being pro-European isn't a coherent political position on its own. Pro-Europeans have to say what kind of Europe they support, how it will be achieved and how the dangers of a united Europe can be avoided. A united Europe may be dangerous. While it could have the strength to stand up to other super-powers, world super-powers have often been a force for bad.

For a few days it seemed as though the Irish vote might be disregarded or that Ireland would be sidelined by other countries. Then the Czech president said that the Irish vote must be respected and the Treaty could not be ratified.

I don't know what happens next. But a sensible, thoughtful and well-informed debate on Europe is overdue. If we need a new Treaty or Constitution, we'd better all think and vote on it - and accept what the voters in each nation say, even if we don't agree.

Note: Computer problems and lack of time prevented me assembling the range of links I would have liked for this post.

Friday, 20 June 2008

cables, modems and other crises

I am writing this, in haste, in the pub.

No, I'm not having a beer but a double espresso - I ran out of coffee at home yesterday and was gasping for strong, delicious caffeine. But the real lure of the pub was the promise of free wi-fi.

My broadband internet connection is down at home. After several lengthy and irritable (on both sides) conversations with the Virgin Media call centre, they agreed to send out a technician without, as they threatened, charging me £75. I think the problem is with broadband because the "ready" light frequently flickers and goes out. This will be the second technician in a week despatched to help us.

Sometimes the call centre admits there is a signal problem. sometimes not. They suggest the problem is with the router but, even when I take the router out, the best connection I can get is a home page that takes five minutes to load. And then the connection dies.

At work, my computer decided to freeze half-way through the opening procedure. After a morning of anxiety, a technician tried a new cable, and it worked again. But I don't know if it will continue to work and nor does he. Meanwhile my trusty laptop (also the property of work) is waiting for someone to authorise repairs. I'm not allowed to do so. The technicians claim the problem could have been caused by dropping the laptop. I didn't drop it. It's suffering from overwork, perhaps. Some of the letters on the keyboard have worn away.

I don't know how many hours I've spent on internet and computer problems. They have stopped me blogging. I hope I'll be back soon.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

"like a dead man"

Just at the moment, I'm unable to post as frequently as I would wish. But I ask anyone visiting my blog to read Mark Haddon's article in today's Observer in full. He's writing about the treatment of refugees in Britain. I thought I knew enough about this subject, but his account of human beings denied life-saving medical treatment, parents and children forbidden from meeting, and brutal deportation procedures makes me feel sick and angry. And that's before I think of human beings who have been raped and tortured condemned to destitution in Britain. They are punished because they believed Britain's favourite myth of itself - that Britain cares about freedom and democracy, and defends the oppressed and persecuted.

Refugee Week starts tomorrow. There are events all over the United Kingdom. It's a good opportunity to find out the truth behind the headlines. You can find local events on-line - and there may be programmes in public libraries.

The picture shows Yarl's Wood Detention centre. In the last year for which figures are available, 1,160 children were imprisoned there. They had not committed any crime. 116 were imprisoned for more than 28 days. Because they are asylum seekers, they aren't protected by the same laws as the rest of us.

The video below illustrates one contribution made by asylum seekers to this country: the Amadeus Quartet plays Beethoven (part of the 16th string quartet).

Thursday, 12 June 2008


Freedom has had a bad press lately. There was Operation Enduring Freedom, which turned out to be nothing of the kind. And there have been numerous statements from politicians throughout the west, declaring that the bedrock of freedom is free market economics. These are often made by the same politicians who proclaim that physical safety is the most important civil liberty.

But when I heard David Davis's speech resigning from the House of Commons to prompt a by-election, I was moved. He spoke about questions of freedom that have worried me for some time. He spoke of last night's vote to extend detention without trial to 42 days. He spoke of the growth of the surveillance society: the extension of CCTV cameras and the effect of ID cards, the threat to trial by jury and the prevention of peaceful protest.

Nu-Labour supporters hurried to attack David Davis, condemning his decisions as "expensive" and describing him as "unhinged." He sounded pretty sane to me. Of course, he may seem unhinged by Nu-Labour standards - ideas about democracy and civil liberties may seem pretty strange in an organisation that's apparently obsessed by micro-management and control.

I couldn't help noticing that David Davis undermines one of the arguments often advanced by Nu-Labour MPs: that the defence of freedom is a cause only supported by a comfortable, middle-class minority who don't know what poverty or "real life" is. David Davis and I have one thing in common: we both spent much of our childhood on Wandsworth council estates. He probably had a harder time than I did.

On many other questions I disagree strongly with David Davis. I have never voted Conservative. I strongly oppose some of the positions he has taken on law and order. In particular, I'm against capital punishment, which he supports. But I think the question of freedom that David Davis has raised is so very important that, if I were one of his constituents in Haltemprice and Howden, I'd vote for him. I might even campaign for him - on this issue alone.

I never thought I'd say that of a tory MP.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Money money money money money money money money

As prices rocket and companies start laying people off, there's one good news story - allegedly. I heard it on the news and read it on the BBC website. British companies are the best at creating wealth.

To me, that raises two questions: where does the wealth come from and where does it go? I assume the companies aren't simply printing banknotes and handing them out in the street.

Looking more closely at the story, it turns out that 23% of British or part-British companies have been placed in the top 750 for a league table I've never heard of. It's the 2007 Value Added Scoreboard from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform - a government department which has the job of boosting British business. I suppose the story would have had less impact if it had been billed as "British government says British companies are the best."

So what precisely is being measured? According to the BBC, the scoreboard measures wealth-generation - which it also terms "productivity" by deducting "bought-in" goods and services from profits made by sales. I'm not quite sure where the value is added in all this. But I find it curious that "buying-in" goods and services is seen as such a bad thing in the private sector. In the public sector we're always being told that buying-in from outside, private industries boosts efficiency.

The top five British companies in terms of wealth generation are a surprising group. They're not exactly known for innovation. Some of them aren't even known for being British. They are: Royal Dutch Shell, BP, HSBC, Vodafone, Royal Bank of Scotland.

Royal Dutch Shell may be registered in Britain but its headquarters are in the Hague. Its subsidiary, Shell, has caused debate, especially for its operations in Nigeria, denounced by Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, and for alleged damage to the environment.

BP, initially the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, is a huge multi-national which has come in for criticism and lawsuits alleging environmental damage and human rights abuses. Most of its activities are far from Britain.

HSBC operates under four initials in Britain. They stand for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. While its HQ is in Britain it operates in 83 countries. It may be the world's largest company. It certainly knows how to make money. In the past two years it has made £100 million from running NHS hospitals. The bank's routine charge for fitting an electric socket is £200 - far above the usual rate.

Vodafone is a global mobile phone company. Two years ago it posted a loss before tax of £14.9 billion (for 2005) - the biggest loss ever posted in British corporate history. For all this, it seems to be profitable at the level of current operations. I'm not sure what - if any - the effect of the loss is.

Royal Bank of Scotland seems to have overcome recent problems from the "credit crunch" by asking shareholders to give it £12 billion. Apparently they did. Like most banks, RBS as it is now known is proud of its abilities in "wealth management", helping "high net worth individuals" look after their assets - in offshore trusts, for instance.

I'm sure all five companies will be celebrating their position in this new league table. But I'm still not sure why it's a good news story or what, if anything, it means to British people today.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Battle of the bins

When I first encountered the wheelie bin, I thought it "a pretty neat idea." I came from a county that still used dustbins. Dustbins were heavy to move and their lids clattered. So a relatively quiet bin on wheels that I could simply wheel to the weekly collection point was a helpful innovation.

From time to time I worried about recycling and carried paper, bottles, cloth and cans to recycling points. I didn't do that as often as I'd have liked, because things to be recycled were heavy and awkward. Recycling points seemed to be located for the benefit of drivers. Fortunately charities sometimes went in for recycling and volunteered to visit and take the paper, glass and so on away.

The council decided to promote recycling. I bought a composter and fed it vegetable peelings and coffee grounds. These emerged, remarkably, as good earth. I did so little gardening that the composer was always in surplus but composting seemed the right thing to do.

Then the council got tough about recycling. There were targets and league tables and our council wanted to be seen to do its bit. Every household was provided with a green bin for recycling and given a list of what could be put in it: cardboard, paper, envelopes, cans and the right kind of plastic. I studied the list and did my best.

There were problems. Weekly collections were at an end. The green (recycling) and black (general rubbish) bin had to be put on the pavement on alternate weeks. Failure to put a bin out could mean a 4-week accumulation of rotting rubbish - and a stench. And, big as the bins are, there isn't enough space when re-organising the house and getting rid of rubbish. We're told to take excess rubbish to the local dump - but there's a proviso: pedestrians aren't allowed. The new recycling regime is determined that everyone should have a car.

Of course, I can ring the council and arrange for large items to be collected, and I plan to try that this week as my daughter and her boyfriend, despite numerous assurances, have failed to move her old bed to the dump - and it's rather unsightly in the garden. But I'll have to pay to have it taken away and I fear I'll be required to be at home rather than work so that this can be achieved.

Still, we're lucky with our binmen. They are friendly, cheerful and on one occasion, when I asked, they let me refill the bin with extra rubbish. They're an energetic, helpful crew and remind me of my Uncle John who became a dustman when he stopped working at the docks. He liked active, outdoor work.

Elsewhere, according to the press, binmen have become tyrants, egged on by the councils that employ them. There are story of binmen refusing to take bins that are too heavy in case they fall from the lifting device on the lorry. People in rural areas - including a woman of 79 - have been told that their homes are too remote for rubbish collections and that they must wheel their bins down long country lanes. Fines can be imposed for putting rubbish in the wrong bin. One man was fined £210 because his bin wasn't properly shut. And there are many such reports from all over the country.

We're told that the latest bins are microchipped, though I'm not sure how the microchip will work. Will it be weighing the waste, or photographing it to keep a record of who throws away what rubbish? The plan seems more like science fiction than real life.

I'm particularly alarmed by the story of a mother who put her bin out the day before collection and was fined £265. The local rule says that bins should not be left out before 7.30 a.m. on the collection day. I don't know what I'd do if a rule like that came in here. I'm always in a rush in the mornings and often have to leave home before 7.30.

None of this is the fault of the binmen, who work for long hours in all sorts of weather and aren't paid particularly well. The problem seems to lie in the councils' attitude to people. Too many councils - like government - take a punitive approach to problems. They shout the same cliches: "get tough", "name and shame", "zero tolerance." One council has designed a questionaire asking all sorts of questions about the rubbish produced by each family - and requiring every household to nominate an individual who will take legal responsibility for the bin.

Recycling used to be something that people did voluntarily. I remember mums, dads and other carers happily loading bins with paper for recycling so that the local primary schools could get more funds. I recall the long queues for reduced-price composters, on a one-day only offer from the local council. And there's still some pride left in living lightly - fabric and jute shopping bags have taken off, even if it's hard to get into the routine of carrying a strong bag at all times.

The punitive approach of government and councils has damped my keenness for recycling. It's no longer a project in which everyone is engaged but a mechanism for controlling people's lives and telling them off. (Sometimes, when I hear the scolding voices of local and national politicians, lines from V for Vendetta come to mind.) I know the problems of landfill and I'd like, if it's not too late, to do my bit for saving the planet. But when councils and governments target households for the rubbish they produce, are they starting in the right place?

How much waste is a result not of careless householders but of profligate supermarkets? I can refuse plastic bags but not the excess packaging. I can't remember when I first saw blister packs but I don't think they'd been invented in my childhood and they certainly hadn't taken over the aisles of supermarkets and stationery shops. I don't know why special offers - on beer, baked beans, etc. - so often include an extra layer of plastic packaging. We're encouraged to save more by being less green.

Why aren't governments and local councils turning on supermarkets and other chains of shops that offer over-packaged goods? Are companies more important to them than people - with votes?

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Six hours in the Commune

We know the shape of a film or news broadcast - and we have a sense of how long each takes. Feature films are expected to fit a comforting story arc. Even if the events are distressing, the shape contains it neatly and, as they come towards their end, we have, at least, the reassurance of completeness and inevitability.

Every so often a story breaks that pattern and the effect can be shattering. I first noticed this in a play that began like a folk tale: Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters. And he said to his daughters, "I want to know which of you loves me most." The story span on with cruelty, madness and violence but finally the wicked acknowledged their guilt and were punished. I could relax into the comfort as resolution. "The gods are just," one of the characters remarked, and later, "The wheel is come full circle." And then King Lear entered with the dead body of Cordelia in his arms. That was beyond the comfort of tragedy. "Is this the promised end?" "Or image of that horror?" It doesn't matter who is speaking - the voices pick up the horror of the audience, denied the expected reassurance. Very few dramatists take risks like this - and no other Shakespeare play does.

News stories have a pattern too. Some years ago, I heard a lecture by a speaker who pointed out that the news we watch on television has its own pattern. He told us that the pace and rhythm of news broadcast dictated what we were told. Stories that didn't fit the familiar pattern were discarded. And complete news broadcasts also had to fit a familiar shape so that the news, however disturbing, would also comfort and reassure. He pointed to the pattern that began with the "big story" and ended with an amusing item, followed by the weather. He looked at the structure of broadcasts, the summary at beginning and end, the use of single newscasters or newscasters working in pairs. He said that the news was so carefully shaped to the familiar structure that we couldn't detect the difference between truth and falsehood.

It seemed a pretty radical idea and I wasn't sure about it. However there were two factors which made me take him seriously. Firstly, he suggested we could carry out a small task to demonstrate the truth of his assertions. He talked about the speed of edits in the visuals from news stories. He said that no sequence lasted longer than six seconds without a cut - and suggested we go home and time them. He said that with such short sequences we couldn't easily ask important questions such as: Where is the camera? Who is filming this and why? Is this live film or stock footage? I timed sequences in the news that evening. He was right. Then I recorded a news broadcast. I watched and analysed it sequence by sequence. I started asking the questions the speaker had suggested. Since then, I've never felt the same confidence in TV news.

There was a second reason to take the speaker seriously. Many years before, I'd seen two films he had directed for the BBC. They were brilliant. The first was called Culloden and the second was The War Game. Peter Watkins talked a little about it. The film was made in black and white in 1965 with a mostly amateur cast but wasn't shown on BBC until 1985. Its subject - the possible effect of a nuclear attack on the town of Rochester in Kent - was judged too damaging to public confidence and, after consultations with the Home Office, the BBC announced that the film would not be shown. Eventually there was a screening at the National Film Theatre as well as a U.S. release. This meant that The War Game was eligible for the Academy Awards. It won the 1966 Oscar for best documentary feature. Peter Watkins said that, before representatives of the BBC could get up to collect the Oscar - which goes to the producer, not the director - he got up, made a speech and picked up the Oscar. I saw The War Game at a CND-sponsored screening ten years later. It still hadn't been on general release and there was a possibility that screenings were illegal. It was one of the most powerful and thought-provoking films I had ever seen. After he had made it, Peter Watkins never worked in England again.

Last weekend, I went to see Peter Watkins' most recent film, made in 1999 about the Paris Commune of 1871. I've wanted to see it ever since I first heard of it but this is the first screening I've ever seen advertised. I'd heard it was long but it was only when I bought my ticket that I discovered it lasted 5 hours 45 minutes. There would be an interval, I was told. I made a salad in a box and brought strawberries with me - perhaps not the most sustaining food.

La Commune is a huge film in every way. It has a cast of 220, mostly amateur actors. And it breaks many rules of film-making.

To begin with, the film declares itself a film. Two actors show the audience round the set, built in an empty warehouse. We're introduced to one of the central, fictional themes: in this recreation of 1871, television exists. The Versailles government influences the broadcast media so, in its early days, the Communards set up their own TV station. We watch the Versailles broadcasts as they misrepresent events. We watche people in the Commune watching TV - some prefer the broadcasts from Versaiiles. Then we see that the Commune broadcasters, without being asked, alter events to fit the usual rhythm of news broadcasts - they need to keep an audience. They wonder whether to ignore stories that make the commune look bad.

The events of the Commune aren't the backdrop to a love story or a small domestic drama as it would be in Hollywood. We follow a few individual stories in the 11th arrondissement but the focus is on complex political events and the effects they have on many different people - and, briefly, on society as a whole. Intertitles outline historical events and every so often a black screen gives the audience time to pause and reflect. The actors, who prepared for the film by researching the Commune and their roles, seem to improvise - or live - their roles.

I was tired before I reached the cinema and, towards the end of the first part, my concentration started to flag. But I returned (with peppermint tea) for part 2.

In the second half of the film, debates about the commune grew heated. The actors moved from conditions at the time to their relevance to 1999. There were discussions about women's rights, global economics, the need for action. I was riveted. Here were people considering their own time more clearly because they saw it through the lens of history - and, having researched what happened, they were impassioned about the events of history.

It's not an easy film or a tidy film. It offers more questions than answers. It's about the Commune and the media and the process of film-making. It's about history and what people think when they research the past and consider the present. It's history as hope and muddle and disastrous cruelty.

If you get a chance, see it. Go for the long version. You'll probably find it tiring. You may find it irritating. It's not a comforting film. It risks being condemned for its length, the facts it conveys, and its occasional repetitions. However, it looks marvellous - like early photographs come to life. The actors don't seem like amateurs; they inhabit their role. La Commune challenges the audience and cosy assumptions about what a film is. And there's no safe reassurance at the end.

Monday, 2 June 2008

East Midlands Trains and the duty of care

When I was growing up, I felt secure travelling by tube and train. It helped that my dad worked for London Underground, mending the trains. Books like The Railway Children helped too. (Somehow I skimmed over the end of The Last Battle, even though I was a C.S. Lewis fan.) We had - or rather, my brother had - a train that went on a track past platforms and grass and trees. It was a wonder, with scenery constructed by Dad from kits and papier-mache.

I wanted my children to travel by trains too. It helped that we lived near a station and that trains were the quickest and cheapest way to town. As the children grew older, I bought them their young person's railcards and was anxious when they made their first train journeys alone. Children need to learn to travel independently. Earlier this year my son, who is now 16, went to London by train on his own to meet friends. Last weekend he was booked into a Quaker event. I saw him off on the train and gave him written instructions about the underground train he needed and where he was to meet the others. While he was on his way, he rang to check he was going the right way - and he sent me a text to say he'd arrived safely.

When I was my son's age, I knew the important rule of travelling alone. My parents told me, "If you lose your ticket, tell the guard and give your name and address." Of course, things have changed now. They should be easier since the internet makes it possible to buy tickets on-line.

I bought my son's ticket on-line using the East Midlands Trains website. That let me collect his tickets and seat reservations at my usual station - and I checked they were safely tucked in the wallet with my son's railcard. After all, they cost nearly £34.

But on Monday evening my son rang. He'd got his seat reservation but somehow he'd lost the return half of his ticket that went with it. And the people at St Pancras wouldn't let him on the train. To make things worse, the battery on his mobile phone was dying.

My son doesn't look any older than 16. He'd said goodbye to the organisers of the event and was alone in London with his suitcase and guitar. He didn't know what to do.

That's when I rang East Midlands Trains. I asked if someone could let my son on the train, offering to get a train part-way and join the same train so that I could pay the excess to the train staff. No, I couldn't do that. I asked if I could pay his fare by credit card so that he could get the train. No. So what could I do, given that my teenage son was stranded in London? I could go to my local station and ask the ticket office to help. It was a bank holiday evening and, although trains were still running, the ticket office was shut. The man on the phone gave me another number that might help, but warned me I'd have to pay full fare plus a £10 penalty charge.

It had gone 7.00 and the last train back left London at 8.30. I found someone else to ring the number and buy the ticket, hoping that my son, now without a working mobile phone, had heard my last advice to stay by the ticket office. I headed by train to Leicester. I could perhaps get help there and, if nothing else worked, I could get a train to London and stay there with my son. By this time I was very anxious.

Apparently the new phone number was useless. Someone had to reach a mainline railway ticket office to organise a replacement ticket - and it cost £73.50. Luckily my son was by the ticket office at St Pancras as required (my advice was based on guesswork). He was able to take the ticket and run for the next train. Meanwhile I was in Leicester and, although I knew a ticket had eventually been bought, I didn't know which train my son had caught. The station manager at Leicester was helpful and sympathetic. He contacted St Pancras and even found out which train my son had boarded. I waited to meet him for the return journey.

Accidents happen. People lose tickets. Younger, less-experienced travellers are more likely to have problems. But they need to learn independence.

Under-18s don't have credit cards to pay for new tickets. They are unlikely to have much money with them. My son got back safely only because it was possible for someone to drive to a mainline station (I don't have a car) and pay a large sum of money on my behalf by credit card.

Not everyone has a car.

Not everyone has a credit card - or enough money to pay a huge excess fare.

What would have happened if my son had planned to catch a later train? It took more than two hours to arrange for his return journey.

The East Midlands Trains staff I spoke to by telephone had no helpful advice to offer. They reckoned it wasn't their problem if a 16-year-old, still at school, was stranded in London, 120 miles away. It was his problem - and mine.

What would have happened if it hadn't been possible to pay the £73.50 East Midlands Trains demanded for a one way fare? I suppose my son would have been left to beg, or hitch, or sleep rough at the station. I wonder how many young people are forced into this position.

I'm told that in other countries, people have a legal duty of care for one another. Here the only duty of care seems to be for company profits. Train tickets used to be checked by the train guard - a comforting name that suggested he looked after passengers as well as the train. These days the people checking tickets have different titles: they are train managers and revenue protection officers.

It's nearly a week since I e-mailed East Midlands Trains to complain. No-one has replied. I'm not surprised. I've e-mailed East Midlands Trains before. It can take months to hear from them - if they reply at all.