Decision time

ImageThe German elections differ from the UK versions in many ways, one of them being the profusion of small posters which sprout from almost every lamp-post. Clearly height is a vital statistic as proximity to bored or satirically minded passers-by leave these campaign ads open to mocking ‘modification’ as evidenced by the Die Linke poster seen here. Some parties, notably the CDU, have the dosh to erect larger more expansive affairs but, here in Berlin at least, billboards are the exception. But while Berliners have been spared something along the nauseating lines of the airbrushed earnestness of Cameron’s moony gaze of 2010, they have had to endure an oversize picture of Merkel’s famous inverted diamond hand gesture near the central station. This is clearly meant to convey calm, states-woman-ship and a sense of Business as usual (capital B intended).  The slogans on the posters have been interesting, with a prevalence of the word ‘statt’ which means instead of – We’ll give you this instead of that – in other words. One of the starkest I saw was in Marzahn, an area of Plattenbau (multi-storey seventies style blocks). The poster stated ‘Maria statt Sharia’. It had a picture of two women. ‘Maria’ was blonde and white, while the woman representing ‘Sharia’ was wearing a traditional Muslim black face veil or Niqab. Other posters nearby also showed cartoon Turks seated on a flying carpet with a slogan along the lines of ‘safe journey home’. Marzahn is still predominantly white with some Turkish inhabitants but it is also where, unfortunately, a group of recent Syrian refugees have been housed, not altogether a ‘safe’ haven. These obnoxious posters were, of course, those from the far right, neo-nazi NPD and I never saw them anywhere else in Berlin. Other use of ‘statt’ appeared on some Die Linke posters, one I particularly liked being ‘fair pensions instead of bottle collection’, a reference to the highly widespread practice by especially older men of rooting around in bins for empty soda bottles to collect the Pfand or deposit. The Die Linke posters generally had very clear slogans without frills or even colour, this endeared me to them, though I have no vote whatsoever. Image

One of the other differences is the relative sobriety in the conduct of the candidates. Merkel, for all her neo-Con credentials and monetary mindset, is no Thatcher when it comes to posturing or speechifying. The Germans have had their fill of ideologues and if that means things are slightly boring then, maybe it’s a small price to pay. It will all be decided tomorrow, another difference being the German election happens on a sensibly chosen Sunday.

I hope it won’t be another two years before I comment here though there is a certain symmetry in the space between Einheitstag (unity day) to Wahl (election night)

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Freedom and/or happiness

On Monday 3rd October it was German Re-unification Day. I’d forgotten and popped to the post office and drugstore (chemists are Apotheke here, pharmacies) only to find them shut. After trying to understand a Romanian man explain why, in his broken German, I realised it was a Feiertag – holiday – and remembered the cause – October 3rd, the day chosen to celebrate the point East and West Germany re-united.

Although the celebration was mainly in Bonn this year, I decided to U-Bahn over to the Brandenburger Tor and see what might be going on. Getting out on Unter den Linden, once in the East, I walked towards the Gate, following the route I’d seen East Berliners use in film footage when they were protesting in the latter days. On Monday it was still warm and the bright sun cast long shadows through the Gate’s stone openings as I walked towards them. There were people of all nationalities milling about as it’s obviously quite a tourist spot, usually incorporating actors dressed as US and Soviet military guards in the re-modelled ‘square’, which is edged by embassies. Strikingly, the gate wasn’t entirely open to walk through (partly because there was a big stage on the opposite side) but the barrier across it was a bright red advert for Coca Cola, which, I think, was sponsoring the concert or even, maybe, the whole festival. Not only ironic as a makeshift ‘wall’, it reminded me of the moment in Goodbye Lenin, the affectionately bitter-sweet German film about the changes after the wall fell, when the mother (who doesn’t know it has) sees the big Coca Cola banner being unfurled down the tower-block opposite and her son has to make up some story about why it’s happening.
As I then walked through the side opening, the singer on stage was belting out the chorus of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’ (I wish those days could come back once more…etc) and I wondered “which days?” but as the song is a kind of celebration of past simplicity, the ethos of less being more, it leaned more towards the “days” being those of less ‘choice’ but more simplicity as (perhaps?) in the East. The other songs the singer (young female and German-speaking) sang were all in English while I was there (the next was Otis Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay).
I walked down the 17JuniStrasse, which runs straight ahead from the gate and is named after the 1953 uprising when East German troops and police opened fire on striking workers during a protest. It leads through the big Tiergarten Park. The road was closed off to traffic and lined with food stalls, hat sellers, trinkets and souvenirs. Straight ahead, well before the Siegessäule (Victory Column with the golden angel on), I could see a garish oblong construction with “Happiness Monument” emblazoned on it, it looked like some kind of temporary structure and reminded me, for some reason, of a helter-skelter. I decided to see what it was but as I got closer, I found another, smaller but very striking statue on a plinth in the middle of the road. This depicted a barefoot, walking figure (maybe a woman because long-skirted, but flat-chested like a man – so maybe meant to be non-gendered). The figure’s head is thrown back and the hands up around the mouth as s/he hollers something out loud. Round the top of the plinth is the following inscription: „Ich gehe durch die Welt und rufe ‘Friede, Friede, Friede’ – ‘I go through the world and cry: Peace! Peace! Peace!’

This sculpture, only slightly bigger than life-size and of an anonymous everywo/man telling truth to power, calling right up to the Brandburg Gate and with its back to the Victory Column and the temporary ‘Happiness Monument’ was very moving and truthful – more real than the Real Thing TM.

The ‘Happiness monument’ turned out to be another Coke sponsored thing, ostensibly there to hide cabling or generators, it seemed. It had, once again in English, some kind of slogan about dreaming the world could be a better place and, as I passed, a large security guard, looking like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction eyed me suspiciously. At the side of the 17JuniStrasse, the Soviet war memorial was fenced off, as was The Caller (Der Rufer) the sculpture described above- maybe to stop damage? The thinning, but still milling, crowds looked at both curiously while massive ads for private health-care companies filled the giant screens in lieu of the band who had finished their set.

In the new and expensively marbled Brandenburger Tor U-Bahn station, there are slogans from the Cold War and it struck me as I re-read Ronald Reagan’s famous exhortation to Gorbachev, that it’s now being re-framed by New York protestors as “Mr Obama, tear down this Wall Street.”

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Made in Dagenham

We Want Sex was the first choice of title for the new film Made in Dagenham.  To find out why – read the following:

Recent British films depicting working-class people in the throes of industrial action or staggering through the fall-out of industrial collapse have fallen roughly into two camps – those bitterly truthful, prioritising sharp political accuracy over populist appeal like the brilliant (but to some too worthy) The Navigators (2001) by Ken Loach ; or the fiercely defiant but pluckily chirpy  like The Full Monty, Brassed Off or Billy Elliot.

The latter selection of highly successful and popular films, though focussing on different but all starkly extreme moments in British industrial life, as well as having great stories, performances and mainstream appeal, all contain the implicit or explicit suggestion that sanity, survival and perhaps compensation can be achieved through the power of art. Art, or an art-form is placed as a means to either express or assuage the excoriating pain being suffered.

So male erotic dance triumphs in The Full Monty, music relays angry injustice in Brassed Off and of course ballet and tap forge an escape or a kind of salvation in Billy Elliot.  These films all have tremendous merit, not least for seeking to portray such working class contemporary struggle in the first place and for seeking to do that for the widest audience possible.  But viewing them as a group (let’s say within a genre) it is hard not to sense that the respective producers had a nervousness about the actuality of the context and of particularly spelling out too boldly the political content of the stories they were dealing with; possibly for fear of scarcer box office returns. It is interesting to note, however, that the theatre musical of Billy Elliot (possibly freed from film industry restraints) puts the Miners’ Strike more emphatically centre stage, restoring some of the bite apparently excised from the film relating to the realities of the struggle in 1984/85.

I therefore had some forebodings about what the makers of the new film, Made in Dagenham, would ‘make’ of the Ford machinists’ strike of 1968 which led to the Equal Pay Act and ultimately the revolution for women in the workplace. I viewed the online production stills (true to period, good looking actors) watched a couple of internet clips (good accents, good acting, plucky women workers) and my heart slightly sank. So conditioned was I by what had gone before, I entered the cinema bracing myself for the scene where the women line up and do a plucky cod-Supremes number (Stop in the Name of Love to call the strike?) or a woman takes off her bra in the boardroom in a protest, exploding the pants of the fusty capitalists (feminism reduced to burlesque?).  But NO, this was categorically not the case. No art-form shunted in to coat the political punch; no dilution of the struggle into light entertainment (hey guys, you’ve all lost your jobs but there’s hope under the spotlight, with Simon Cowell in the wings).

Made in Dagenham has brilliantly broken the mould. It combines the clear, explicit and nuanced politics of the best of Ken Loach with the heart-grabbing attractions of any mainstream popular film you care to name. The brilliant scene where Sally Hawkin’s modest and unpractised union rep spells out why the job she does is skilled is a metaphor for the whole movie.  Politics isn’t hard to understand – it’s our lives, stupid! I cannot think of a previous British film with a mainstream aesthetic that has had the guts before to put the ordinary workers’ point of view so wholeheartedly at its centre. But this is no simplistic idealised narrative. Going on strike, as the women find, makes you very unpopular, not least with the very people you’d thought would support you – the Union leadership and your fellow (male) workers. Nothing is a cinch, nothing too easily won and Sally Hawkins brilliantly portrays the thorny predicament of the figurehead of the struggle beginning to doubt her own single-mindedness and how much it’s costing not just her family but the entire town (and possibly the UK’s) working community.

This is truly a film for our times because any industrial action is always met with the knee-jerk media reaction that the strikers are mere greedy troublemakers and have no doubt about it, there will be industrial action after the government announce the extent of the forthcoming cuts. This film, however, offers another narrative. In particular, because it has the benefits of hindsight, it gives lie to that familiar bleat of capitalists that conceding anything (equal pay, minimum wage) to workers will bring about the collapse of industry. A Britain now without equal pay for women is unthinkable (that’s not to say the Act is universally applied – shamefully Sunderland Council still tried to defend itself in a case only last year involving a large contingent of female workers).

Made in Dagenham shows a true story in a truthful, thoroughly engaging way. There is not one bum note in any of the performances – from Kenneth Cranham’s sleazily compromised Union official, to Rosamund Pike’s surprisingly moving posh wife, to Jaime Winstone’s wannabe model – everybody has a committed credibility without ever being worthy or cloying and Sally Hawkins (with a startling look of the young Rita Tushingham) plays a richly layered blinder in the central role.  Huge hats off to the writer Billy Ivory who has written a bright, funny, completely un-patronising and clever script. And a big, big thank you to producers Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen for the guts to get right inside the truth of this big, big story that started in a little place.

This could be a landmark not just for British film but be a turning point in a new cultural relationship where it is understood that good, mainstream and populist art can serve the real politics of people’s everyday lives rather than proposing itself as a substitute and where working class people can be presented as rounded, admirable (if flawed) human beings rather than villains (thank you Guy Ritchie) or clowns (the shameful regurgitation of Shameless). Why was it called We Want Sex? The answer lies in a scene in the film, which you’ll have to go and see to find out.

Made in Dagenham is out in the UK from 1st October 2010. Go and see it!

PS – somebody should make The Barbara Castle story, another tale with tang!

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other people’s stories

Our interpretation of other people’s narratives or characters sometimes conflict with the story they are living. Yesterday on the local train, I noticed that a young man sitting in front of me was crying. He had his back to me but his shoulders were shaking and as he turned his face to the window I could see he was crying and I started to hear his gasping sobs. He looked poor, his clothes shabby. I was momentarily wary of approaching him but I pushed away the idea that it might be drug related or that he might be violent (two prejudices that came up straight away). Another fear was that I might create some kind of dependency (!?) if I comforted him (‘what might you get yourself into?’) But I did go over and ask if he was okay. I touched his shoulder and his t-shirt was soaking, as if he’d been standing out in the rain. I said something like ‘whatever it is, it will pass’. He said it was okay but carried on sobbing. I didn’t want to intrude further, he seemed to need to carry on crying so I went and sat back on my seat. At the next stop two loud couples got on and I feared there might be a clash, that they’d ridicule him for being vulnerable (again thinking the worst). But like me, they (one of the young men, his age) asked if he was okay. He looked up and they recognised him and asked, even more concerned, if he was all right. Through his tears he gave them a cheery reassurance and went to the exit doors. When he got off, I heard the couples recall his grandfather was very ill and guess he may have died. The mixture of pain and compassion was a salutary reminder of the people concerned’s humanity. The type of people so often feared or scorned.

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taken out of self or into life?

Jonathan Miller was taken to task (again) in the Independent yesterday for criticising celebrity culture, in particular the casting of ‘stars’ in theatre plays, particularly in London.

While there have been notable exceptions to this rule on the London stage recently: Pitman Painters and (arguably) Jerusalem, (depending on your view of MacKenzie Crook) celebrities still do gobble up more than their fair share of pretty much everything. And it certainly isn’t confined to the stage or London. Most of our culture now, as shown on TV and to a certain extent radio, whether it be cooking, cleaning, buying a house or having a bowel operation, is approached in a ‘particularised’ rather than a universal way.

In other words, we are not encouraged to see PAST the person and AT the experience but to entirely focus ON THEM or at least their reactive surface in an act of compulsive but highly superficial voyeurism – a fetishistic voyeurism. It is an individualised not a universalised experience. So, to return to the stage, for example, David Tennant is a good actor; but the majority of people who went to see his Hamlet, probably went to look AT HIM not at Hamlet or what the play is about. This is why celebrity diminishes experience rather than expanding it.

Literature operates differently to this, (or certainly should); it does work through specifics, but (at its best) these specifics provide portals to the universal and enrich our sense of being and living rather than leaving us with the hollow sense that we have just been on the outside, witnessing someone else’s fascinating experience or talent and that comparably we are considerably poorer (in every sense) and less interesting than they are.

True literature expands us, rather than diminishing.  Jonathan Miller criticised the idea of people wanting to be ‘taken out of themselves’ in the theatre; saying he wanted to ‘take them INTO themselves’. I agree.  We are ALL interesting and far bigger and more complex than we are given (or give ourselves) credit for.  Celebrity culture puts us on the outside looking in (enviously); literature opens others up and consequently ourselves, breaking through barriers and showing our interconnected humanity.

Real lives, lived outside what is spot-lit, are far more interesting than that which gets constantly shoved in front of audiences via the broadcast media.  Literature finds the hidden parts of people’s being and lays out their extraordinary precious uniqueness while at the same time connecting to and illuminating these aspects of our own experience.

So called reality TV was so wide of this mark it was, in the words of another writer, “closer to Restoration Comedy than real-life.” A passingly amusing, but ultimately degrading, souring exaggeration and reductive travesty of human experience.

I hope Britain is moving out of this nauseating trend and seeing it for the pap it truly is.

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the reality of your life

What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life. – Ted Hughes

watch this space…

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Past the halfway re-build

While I’ve been working into the previous draft of the novel and transforming it into the next, the metaphor which comes to mind is rebuilding a large house by completely demolishing some rooms and thoroughly enhancing others, while adding passages (good word) so the rooms all connect.

Narrative is very architectural.

The cheeriest news I’ve heard in a long time is that Alison Gangel, a debut novelist friend has a deal with Bloomsbury. So very good to hear.

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