Monday, 20 October 2008

Wanting more

Beneath the layers of sentimentalism, Oliver Twist is a story of child abuse. This gets lost in the famous musical adaptation where Harry Secombe is a cuddly Mr Bumble and Ron Moody a witty, affectionate Fagin.

The new adaptation I caught in Derby last Friday was clear about the violence and brutality. Oliver was caught in the government-ordered cruelty of the workhouse and escaped to the similar cruelties of Fagin and Bill Sikes. Starvation, violence, prison and execution were more probable for children than the luck of meeting a generous philanthropist. And Nancy wasn't a cheerful tart with a heart but a desperate young woman in the clutches of her pimp, who had been one of Fagin's child-thieves at the age of six and moved into prostitution as the next step.

Adaptations of Dickens have to decide which plots to include and which to omit. For those who know the original novel, this included Monks and omitted Rose Maylie. If you don't know who they are, you can easily find out. People in the audience who had never read the novel gasped at some of the twists in the plot so I'm not planning to give it away.

Oliver Twist is still relevant. A programme note mentioned the way some of today's politicians blame the poor for everything that goes wrong in their life. It made me realise that today Oliver would be wearing a hoodie while the Artful Dodger would be glorying in a string of ASBOs.

But while it would be easy to update the plot, this version kept the story in its original setting. The first episodes were published in the months before Victoria came to the throne and it belongs to the violent class antagonisms of that time. In particular, the book attacks the inhumanity of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, driven in part by the desire to punish "bastardy" - that's why Oliver is illegitimate. This version echoed this theme by emphasising the role of Oliver's young mother, driven to run away from a sense of shame and guilt.

There are songs too. Lionel Bart's songs have a lot going for them. They express a working-class determination to survive and celebrate - but they're a long way from Dickens. The songs in this play expressed radical criticism of injustice and inequality. I don't think Dickens would ever have sung such songs but the reminder of the anger that fuelled them said something about the audience of Dickens' novels. Anyone who finds Dickens' story too violent, extreme and sentimental should try G.W. M. Reynolds' monumental Mysteries of London, which became a much larger seller just ten years later. But that's another story - or, to be accurate, a compendium of interweaving stories - and far longer and more melodramatic than anything Dickens wrote.

Note: I wanted to find links to the songs from the play, since I think they may come from the period and they would have shown the contrast with Lionel Bart. But I couldn't find them. So I'm linking to Chumbawamba singing two songs which are probably a year or two later than Oliver Twist: The Chartist Anthem and Poverty Knock (which is from the north of England, not London). They're the nearest I can get.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Cycling on the pavement

A cracked tooth meant a visit to the dentist and my failure to get up early meant I had to get there on my bike. There's no quick bus route - and I'd left it too late to walk.

The area is criss-crossed with cycle paths. They take engaging little detours and, every so often, allow cyclists to go in the opposite direction to the traffic. I'm pleased there are cycle paths but I'm never entirely sure where they go. Occasionally there are helpful signs with words like "university" but usually they point vaguely in the direction of some large area I don't wish to visit. I cycle to fencing, swords and all, and wouldn't do that without the helpful cycle path, but apart from that I tend to do what I've always done - share the road with cars and lorries.

However, I was heading towards the dentist in the rush hour and the lorries were closer than I liked. I vaguely remembered a cycle path I'd used before and, when I saw a sign, decided to risk getting lost.

I found myself cycling through quiet residential streets and little twitchells (or jitties, as narrow alley ways are more commonly called in this part of the world - "twitchell" is the posh usage). No-one was driving and hardly anyone was about. And then I was back on the main road and the tiniest section of tarmac was marked out for cycles. The roundabout had no cycle path at all. I think I was supposed to get off and cross at the lights but I've been cycling round roundabouts for as long as I've been cycling and used to enjoy crossing three lanes of cars at Marble Arch before the traffic lights were instituted.

The slope was a bit too much for me, though it's fun going down, and I pushed my bike part of the way. After reaching the dentist on time and experiencing some remarkably pain-free treatment, I decided to try more cycle paths on my return. I hadn't brought a jacket and realised the heavy drizzle was going to leave me damp - I didn't want to be sprayed by cars rushing through puddles.

I had to look carefully for the cyclepath signs. First I needed to find the start of a path so I looked for the small, black signposts. It took me a while to find one and at first I wasn't sure where I was supposed to cycle. Then I saw the white, painted cycle symbol on the pavement, almost covered by wet yellow leaves. The leaves were a problem since half the pavement was allocated to pedestrians and half to cyclists - the fallen leaves meant that I couldn't see where the division was. There may have been arrows too and more signs but the rain and leaves made it hard to find the way. The track led from pavement to jitty and then, every so often, took a narrow section of the road - at times the section seemed narrower than my handlebars though I suppose it must have been broader than that.

It wasn't easy. Every so often I found myself cycling on the pavement and then seeing that the cycle path had taken a different, parallel route. Eventually all bikes were directed on a route I didn't want to take, so I wheeled my bike alongside the main road until the turning off I needed.

At least I didn't hit anyone when I found myself cycling on the pavement - and no-one tried to arrest me. I wonder if "leaves on the sign" would count as a defence in court.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Incitement to murder

Last week I found myself listening to Billie Holiday on CD. She was singing "Strange Fruit," the song written by Abel Meeropol. It takes on a painful life in Billie Holiday's performance, sung by a woman who knew the daily cruelties of racism from direct experience.

I had to explain what the song was about and did this briefly, without details. The truth of lynchings in the former slave-states of America really is too horrible. Billie Holiday's voice recalls the way lynchings were experienced by the black descendants of slaves. And the photographs tell us how the white members of lynch mobs and their families experienced these occasions.

These days the photos are so upsetting that it takes me a while to ask the important question: who took the photographs and why? When I look at photographs of lynchings (it's hard to look - I flinch and look away after seeing one or two) I can't look at the dangling, disfigured corpses so I start to look at the people standing by.

Usually the white people are aware of the camera. They're posing - looking back at the photographer. Sometimes they are men, putting on a stern appearance. But often the crowds are a mixture of men and women, dressed in their good clothes for the occasion. Sometimes there's a party atmosphere. Often children are present - some quite small.

The pictures were taken as souvenirs, just like the pictures in Abu Ghraib. They were often sent as postcards and kept by the people who received them. That's why the evidence has survived. Looking at the pictures again - just a glimpse - and focussing on the white crowds, I see no evidence of anger or shame.

Watching the American elections from Britain, I'm strongly aware of this history of brutal, violent racism. It's not exclusive to the United States. Britons, with their colonial past, have no cause for smug self-congratulation. Many Britons were, like me, amazed and admiring to discover that the United States had moved so far from its past that a major political party could nominate a black man as a presidential candidate - and were impressed to see that Barack Obama was ahead in the polls. A country overcoming the racism of its past might be an example to the world.

Recent news from the McCain-Palin campaign has therefore come as a shock. At first John McCain's team were polite, aware of the dangers to their opponent and their country. There's a history of assassination in the United States and Barack Obama was given secret service protection early last year - before he'd secured the nomination .

But since the selection of Sarah Palin as vice-president, the Republican campaign has turned nasty.

At first, the selection of Sarah Palin seemed a brilliant move. She looked like a fighter against corruption as well as someone who would bring in the Christian evangelical voters who were suspicious of McCain. I didn't like her politics but I thought she might be honest. I worried about stories of attempted censorship in a public library but the truth was unclear. I thought I'd better give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I heard about her lies - even about Darfur - sickened me. But I assumed it was just politics as usual - and not in my country. While I think Obama would probably be preferable to McCain, I have doubts. I follow his campaign with interest but I'm not an Obama supporter.

Reports of recent Republican rallies
are another matter. The stories are raging through the British press. Members of the audience are shouting out "Kill him!" "Terrorist!", "Treason!" and "Off with his head" when McCain, Palin and members of their team attack Barack Obama. No-one has disowned or condemned those comments - John McCain and Sarah Palin's team simply move to the next rally, repeat the same attacks and encourage the same responses. Defenders of the Republican campaign say that these calls come from isolated, unhinged individuals. But it's often isolated and unhinged individuals who become assassins.

From here, the latest Republican campaign speeches are beginning to sound like incitement to murder. And the smiling faces of supporters at Republican rallies - and the cheers that greet every fresh smear and innuendo - are beginning to recall those well-dressed, respectable families who brought their children to attend the lynchings of black youths - and smiled for for the camera.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Iceland and the axis of evil

"The half wit does not know that gold
Makes apes of many men:
One is rich, one is poor,
There is no blame in that.

Those words, translated by W.H. Auden and Paul B. Taylor, come from 'Hávamál', also known as 'The Words of the High.' The earliest manuscript version comes from around the year 800 but the poem probably pre-dates Christianity in Iceland as the words are ascribed to the god Odin.

I've wanted to visit Iceland for many years - even before I saw pictures its mountains, plains and geysirs. The starting point was Auden and MacNeice's travel book, Letters from Iceland, which combines comedy with an underlying seriousness - Iceland is a place of sanity in a world rapidly going mad.

The Iceland Auden and MacNeice visited was a relatively poor country. Since I've wanted to go there, it has seemed too expensive. Every so often I leaf through a travel brochure or visit tourist websites and then the prices deter me. I don't want a weekend break - I want to see Iceland properly and learn enough of the language to get by, but that's far too expensive.

Britain's relationship with Iceland has been awkward. I remember the antagonisms of the Cod Wars, especially the third Cod War in which Iceland claimed that its unilateral extension to its coastal waters was an attempt to stop overfishing. Iceland may have had a point as the seas have certainly been overfished since then, but Icelanders were portrayed in the press as unpleasant, violent people trying to grab territory from poor British fishermen.

Later the image changed - the Icelanders were cool, sophisticated people wandering through trendy Reykjavik and swimming in the Blue Lagoon. I was never quite convinced by that. I had, at least, glanced at a copy of a novel by Halld
ór Laxness and the Icelandic people he described didn't seem quite like that.

I hadn't noticed the rise of Icelandic banks. I don't worry too much about where my money is held, so long as the bank operates efficiently. I know I ought to take more trouble about ethical accounts but I've been defeated by the effort entailed in switching to the Co-op, though I do have an ISA with Triodos. The safety of money seems a matter of luck and quite beyond my control - if it vanishes, I'll have to do without it.

The crash in Iceland took me by surprise and the ripples shook me. I hadn't realised Icelandic companies owned so much - or, it turned out, owned less than nothing. The assets seem to be cancelled out by liabilities and the government has stopped trading on the stock exchange and presided over the closure of the banks.

Poor Iceland - it seems that the country is in debt to the rest of the world. That debt amounts to £116,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. And Gordon Brown is threatening to sue for British assets.

I don't know how one country sues another. I don't know how Iceland is supposed to pay the rest of the world for the money lost by its banks. I can see that there's an argument about where the money should be, just as there was with Lehman Brothers. Lehman was accused of sending money out of Britain to privilege debtors in the United States - but Lehman is old news now.

I'm slightly shocked to find that the British government is using anti-terrorism legislation against Iceland. At 10.00 this morning, Gordon Brown enacted a Statutory Instrument under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. It was called the Landsbanksi Freezing Order 2001 and it came into force 10 minutes later - one hour and fifty minutes before it was laid before Parliament. The Home Office website is clear on the purposes of the Act. It was introduced to "cut off terrorist funding" and improve security. It was even meant to aid European co-operation. And it was introduced in response to the shock of 9/11, without the detailed debate and analysis that would be usual.

It may be necessary to act quickly on funds. But we were told that this law, like so many others, was introduced to keep us safe from terrorists - to prevent another 9/11. Has Iceland suddenly joined the Axis of Evil?

I find I'm impressed by the behaviour of ordinary Icelanders, as reported on the BBC. And there's something moving about the behaviour of the Icelandic rock star, Bubbi Morthens, who convened and performed at a free concert opposite the parliament building, asking people to stand together. Bubbi Morthens has lost money too. He spoke of a "new reality" and the possibility of a "new dawn". The language is too vague for me to be sure about what he means - there could be implications I've missed. But this does seem a time for people to stand together and face reality - and to think about how society must change. I just hope that what emerges is a more just and kinder society.

Meanwhile, here's Bubbi Morthens performing in Copenhagen (mostly in English) in 2007.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Girl number 20

There's something addictive about watching the little red figures change. Every so often they flicker into green for an hour or so. Sometimes a day ends with the figures locked into green. Then the descent begins again.

The stock markets are so remote from what really matters that it's hard to see the probable effect of the descending numbers. It seems as though the effects will be felt first by the rich and irresponsible. Those who made money gambling on the markets may have to do without new fur coats this year. They may cut their fleet of limousines, sell a country house or travel business class instead of hiring a private jet.

The rest of us have less to lose - but it looks as though what we own may be at risk. Those who obediently followed the advice of the government or experts may suddenly find themselves unable to take money from their bank, without pensions, without insurance - even without their home. In an economy built on debt and luxury services, jobs are beginning to crumble just as prices rise. So much of what we take for granted has been made in sweatshops overseas, at prices we thought we controlled - now it turns out that the market doesn't always run in our favour. The producers are beginning to take control and raising their prices. Soon we'll be looking around for our manufacturing industry and wondering where it went. We may even be asking why the coal mines were closed if we can't afford to import the fuel we need. We'll wonder what happened to the farms.

Or perhaps, suddenly and for no apparent reason, the markets will settle, banks will be able to borrow vast sums of money again - and will urge us to borrow it - and we'll get back to where we were before, thinking that we're rich.

I wander down the High Street wondering how safe the shops are and which will be there next week, let alone next year. A couple of weeks ago I set out with my son to buy him a birthday present at his favourite music shop. The shop had been there for years, staffed by dedicated workers who spent many of their evenings practising, teaching and playing folk music. The shop was a busy wonderland of instruments that careful visitors were allowed to play. I was startled to hear my son trying a harp for the first time and picking out a Christmas carol. There were sitars and Chinese lutes as well as banjos, guitars, violins and a basement given over to wind instruments. My son did work experience there and learnt to re-string his guitar and take a clarinet to pieces for cleaning. Then, suddenly, the shop was gone. Only a few cardboard boxes and a harp stood in the window. There were a few notices but no explanation. I wish I knew where the staff were. I'll never forget the kindness with which they showed my son new chords on the guitar and encouraged his playing.

There are so many small shops, set up by helpful optimists. They were encouraged by a climate which urged people to become entrepreneurs and work for themselves. They invested their life savings and so many hours in a dream - sometimes starting from scratch and sometimes paying for a franchise. But as jobs go and savings lose their value, who can afford beauty treatments, frothy coffee, fancy cakes, crystals, strings of glittering beads? Even food retailers find it hard to compete with supermarkets - and will find it harder to keep going. I fear Tesco has more chance of survival than the local greengrocer. (Our cheese shop, with its splendid array of British cheeses, closed years ago, despite its loyal customers. Apparently not quite enough of us transferred our custom from the big supermarket. I wish I'd known how close the battle was and I'd have encouraged all my friends to shop there.)

Even the big shops are at risk. Many seem to have been owned by Icelandic companies and, as Iceland goes bust, the companies (including Hamleys, Woolworth, Moss Bros and House of Fraser) are being "let go". I wonder who has money - or will risk the debt - to take them over. Perhaps they will be lost like the names of the past: Lilley and Skinner, Mackintosh sweets and all the rest.

For the moment, I'm more or less untouched. So far as I know, I still have money in the bank - and it's a small enough quantity to be, in theory, safeguarded by the government. In theory I can still look forward to a pension. What will really happen, if the crash is very bad, I don't know.

I keep looking back to prosperous times, only a few months ago, and for some reason I keep remember the lesson the children were taught in Charles Dickens' Hard Times which is, among other things, a critique of political economy. Mr M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster, is trying to teach a class of children what prosperity is. Most of the children learn their lesson but girl number 20, Sissy Jupe fails to get the point. Asked if a country with "fifty millions of money" is a prosperous nation, she can only reply, "
I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine." Mr M'Choakumchild persists, urging Sissy to imagine the schoolroom an immense town "and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?" Sissy responds, "I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million." But that, she is told, is the wrong answer. What matters is the prosperity of the nation as a whole and not who has the money or whether some people starve.

Our prosperous country hasn't just ignored the suffering of the poor in recent years. Mockery of the poor has become widespread while wealth, however acquired, has been a passport to fame and respect. Now it looks as though we're headed into the storm.