Saturday, 4 June 2011

Bread and circuses

After a busy period at work when I haven't found time to blog, I'm experiencing the delights of bread and circuses.

The bread is literally bread. I've finally explored one of the Polish shops near work and discovered a range of central European breads: heavy rye bread, bread with sunflower seeds and so on, reflecting the cuisine of various countries - not just Poland but also Latvia and Lithuania. They seem to me better than the supermarket "specialty" brands - and cheaper too.

I went to a circus as well - the Moscow State Circus which was touring near me on the day of the Royal Wedding. It was a good counter-balance to that other circus. It had a story too. If I grasped the moral correctly, it was something about taking money from the rich and spending it sensibly so that everyone could enjoy the arts. Just now that seems a pretty good idea.

All round me there's anxiety. Friends find their jobs at risk. (I seem to be safe - at least till next year, and that's ages in the present economic climate.) Health and social care are in the news. The Financial Times has picked up a story about health authorities and hospitals at risk. In many cases the risk has been caused or worsened by the involvement of private companies, who were quick to enter into Private Finance Initiative agreements that safeguarded profits at the expense of the ill, the injured and the dying. Meanwhile the big companies that make money out of caring for frail elderly people and those with disabilities have in their turn been brought close to collapse by private equity companies. From the point of view of profiteers, it seemed a neat arrangement: sell the homes to other companies, agree an ever-rising rent, trust the market - and get out quickly when the economy falters.

Obviously I should have arranged a better pension for myself, according to the right-wingers. That's the same right-wingers who object that my public-sector pension will be too generous (if I ever get there) and who tell me I should find ever more to spend on my children, my parents and every cause and charity near to my heart. But if I do my best, it's never quite enough. According to them, I should also spend more on insurance and save more - but in the present economic climate insurance companies can go bust. Even banks, which may be bailed out, seem a bit of a gamble. They depend on the markets, which depend on an ever-increasing chain of gambles and exploitation.

So besides bread, I comfort myself with circuses. I may have visited only one actual circus in the past month, but I've been making up for it by enjoying other activities which give me pleasure. They remind me that life is more than a dragged-out existence. Life isn't just about duty - we need pleasure too. For some people that means getting out into a new place, whether it's roaming the countryside or strolling through towns. Others enjoy dancing or sport - and my regular experience of wielding an epée makes me understand that these can be sources of intense pleasure. For other people it's watching sport going to gigs that's important. My circuses involve engagement with the arts.

I headed to London to see my parents, travelling as lightly as I could so that I could sandwich my visit with artistic pleasures. I was a groundling for a matinée of All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe - a difficult play that's rarely performed. It's not just its unfamiliarity that makes it one of my favourites. There's a pair of determined, assertive young women - even though the times mean that the best either can hope is an attractive, wealthy husband to lord it over them.

I've seen All's Well twice before - and in both productions the focus was on the central relationship between Helena and Bertram. The comedy was played either as abstruse courtly wit, at a distance from the audience, or a cue for over-emphasis with lots of "isn't this funny?" expressions in the hope that the audience would laugh. The revelation of this production was that, for the groundlings at least, the comedy worked and was genuinely funny. It comes, I think, from the shape of the theatre which encourages the actors to establish a relationship with the audience. Comic lines were played with the clarity of the successful stand-up - and were irresistible. I engaged with the play as a whole - how could I do otherwise with my forearms leaning on the front of the stage? - and, when the final scene of reconciliation came, my eyes filled with unexpected tears.

I stayed overnight with my parents, still in their own flat so less immediately threatened by the private profits of the market. We had supper and a quiet evening. In the morning I left with them when they headed out to the shops but my aim was a further exploration of London.

I was unsure of my destination but eventually decided on the Guildhall Museum, which I hadn't visited before, followed by the London Museum, which I hadn't seen for many years. Walking between and around the two, I found myself in a many-layered city, where modern structures of glass and metal loomed high above small Wren churches. There are traces of an even older city. I glimpsed the old London Wall through a museum window and saw what's left of the Roman amphitheatre in the Guildhall Museum basement.

That's the kind of structure Juvenal meant when he talked about bread and circuses: a place where shows of all kinds were put on, including gladiatorial combat and public execution. Being in some ways a typical Roman of his class, I don't suppose he minded the gladiators or the executions. But he was concerned that the citizens of Rome, once the source of democratic power, had been diverted from their proper concerns for the state to making demands for bread and circuses.

I agree with Juvenal that people should recognize and exert their democratic power. But I think he's wrong to dismiss bread and circuses. We all need food to live - not just food for the body but something that nourishes the imagination and tells us that life is worthwhile. It's also the circuses, whether we find them in physical activity, travel, music or the arts, that open us to a wider imaginative understanding of the world. They nourish curiosity and sympathy. They offer laughter, tears and reconciliation.

Yes, Juvenal - I want democratic involvement and responsibility. But I'll take the bread and circuses as well.