Saturday, April 28, 2007

What I Heard About Iraq

Adapted by Simon Levy from Eliot Weinberger's article
Directed by Hannah Eidinow
Unity Theatre (27th-28th April 2007)

Well...Iraq...what can you say? Probably nothing that hasn't been said by a million people around the world. And yet it goes on unrelentingly. The news we hear seems worse by the day, and it's becoming ever clearer that the US-led invasion of that country has been disastrous for almost everyone involved. Unless you own oil or aerospace (weapons of mass destruction) shares, it's a horror beyond your wildest nightmares.

Perhaps then this piece of verbatim theatre is the only way the war could be brought to the stage without seeming phoney and manipulative. Although, come to think of it, those are two of the kinder adjectives which could be applied to 'our' political leaders.

What I Heard About Iraq started off as an article by American writer Eliot Weinberger, which was published in the London Review Of Books. From there it took on a life of its own, and was quickly given theatre space in the United States, where it provoked fights amongst audience members. Last year it won a major prize at the Edinburgh festival, and the production is now on a six week tour of smallish UK venues, and being constantly updated to incorporate the latest grim and grisly stories.

The central idea couldn't be any simpler. As dates are flashed up on the screen, three men and two women tell us what they heard about Iraq. The quotes and stats are presented in chronological order, starting with current US Vice President Dick Cheney's 1992 claim that the Bush Senior had been wise not to
get ‘bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq’. We were then brought bang up to date with the latest military deaths, including one young man from Liverpool.

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, the 'Defense' Secretary who was one of the invasion's main architects, "Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war". So it's just as well that at about an hour long, the performance is just enough to give a flavour of the hell-on-earth that is Iraq, without completely overwhelming theatregoers. And there is the odd moment of absurdly bleak humour, especially when we hear one of the murderous gangsters known as 'politicians' get tangled up in their own web of deceit.

And that was the genius of Weinberger's article. In this age of instant global communication (and especially Google), all the lies are there for all to see. All it takes is for someone to join the dots and reveal the subversive truth. There swing Bush, Rice, Blair and all the other war criminals, hanging on a rope of their own making.

After the applause had faded, one of the performers announced there would be a question and answer session a few minutes later. The packed auditorium only lost about ten bodies, as many people wanted to share their feelings about the war, the media, and the political system in general.

Of course, no play is going to stop this madness. But I left the theatre confident that the general public is learning to see through the lies, half-truths and misinformation that the rich and powerful attack us with every waking hour.

Friday, April 27, 2007

1st May Is Your Day! (Probably)

Unless you make money off other people's hard work, 1st May each year is YOUR day! Yes, it is a day to celebrate YOU, and all YOUR struggles against the profit system! It also helps us remember our predecessors, many of whom died so that we could live better lives.

International Workers' Day has been celebrated for over one hundred years. It was set on May 1st to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs, who were murdered in Chicago for demanding not only an eight hour working day (something which would be a step forward for many of us in the UK today) but the destruction of the capitalist system, which demands ever greater attacks on working class people in the name of profit.

You might ask what this has to do with you, in Liverpool, in 2007. But take a look around!
Sometimes it all gets a bit too much, and even the most committed activists feel disheartened. We didn't choose this fight, it chose us because of our class position. But together we are strong! Mayday is the time when we look back at the example of those who struggled before us, and forward to struggles in our near future. As one of the martyrs shouted at his execution: "The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."

In Liverpool this week, there are quite a few events as part of the Mayday festivities. The fun begins on Friday, 27th April, when the Liverpool Social Forum launch LARF (Liverpool Alternative Radical Film collective), with a three day festival of fascinating, thought-provoking, and inspiring films. On 1st May itself, Merseyside TUC have organised a march and rally for all those who want 'Save our public services' and 'Say no to racism'! Then in the evening, the action shifts to The Bumper on Hardman Street, where Liverpool Social Forum's gig will raise funds for Iraqi trade unionists and the Liverpool Social Centre.

Mayday is YOUR day! Make the most of it!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs

Written by David Halliwell, Directed by Stuart Hudson
Four Chaps and a Chick
Unity Theatre (17th-18th April 2007)

No doubt when David Halliwell's debut play hit the stage in 1964, gales of laughter reverberated around the venue, as a certain type of person recognised characters they knew and despised. Yes, the ridiculously simplistic caricatures of student radicals would have delighted the kind of sneering middle class people who had never had a dream worth fighting for in their lives, yet feared those who did. In 2007, a youngish Unity crowd laughed loudest at the line 'I'm going for a shite'.

When we first meet Malcolm Scrawdyke (played by director Stuart Hudson), he is struggling to get out of bed. He's just been chucked out of art school by the head teacher, basically because he never does any work. But in Malcolm's head, the real reason for his imminent departure is that society is run by 'eunuchs' who stifle true geniuses like himself. With friends Irwin (Paul Barrow), Wick (Tim Blagden) and Nipple (Barry Hudson), he plots to conquer the world, and enjoy 'power for power's sake'.

As the play unfolded before me, I was aware it was supposed to be a comedy. That much was obvious from the pauses and accompanying notes of desperation in the actors' voices as the expected shrieks failed to materialise.

The audience was shaken out of its collective near coma by some genuinely shocking scenes near the end, involving the 'chick' who was the object of Malcolm's lust (played by Mary Gerardine Hooton, who put in the evening's only impressive performance). But even this was unconvincing, precisely because it came so out of the blue.

This was a dire waste of two and a half hours, plus the half hour it's taken me to type my review.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

One Third Of New Liverpool City Centre Flats Going To Waste!

A piece in today's Liverpool Daily Post revealed that a staggering 35% of the newly-built apartments in Liverpool city centre are lying empty!

According to the article, 4,756 apartments are to come onto the city centre market in the next 12 months, and a further 3,653 in the pipeline.

With the Capital of Culture celebrations just eight months away, rents in the city are going through the roof, and over 20,000 people were on the council's housing list as of last April.

However, the council are refusing to build affordable housing, and are creating a market which is thriving on luxury housing and speculation.

Steven Beilin, managing director of BE Property Services, told the Post that:

He said: “There are around 27,000 new-build apartments in Liverpool and around 15,000 of these are not occupied. There are more and more being built and I estimate that we are going to end up with around 25,000 unoccupied flats in the city centre."

I'm not the world's greatest mathematician, but the sums seem quite simple. 25,000 nice new empty flats. About 20,000 of us waiting for affordable housing, plus all the builders working on them, many of whom are from Eastern Europe.

What's standing in the way of this common sense solution? Oh yeah, capitalism.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Building Up To 2008 In Liverpool

Loads of money is being made on the building work that’s taking place around Liverpool at the moment. But what about the actual builders? Adam Ford spoke to Terry Eagan of the UCATT trade union, who’s been a bricklayer for thirty-six years, about the state of play in the city.

What’s the mood amongst builders in the city?
To be honest, most of the people I know are travelling from outside. So while there’s a construction boom going on, it can be extremely difficult to get work. For example I’ve just spent five months on the dole, and I went on every site in the city, and I was at the job centre three or four days a week.

What is causing these problems?
Well I think the subcontractors like to carry their own teams. There’s also a preference on their part to avoid local labour, certainly there’s hostility to any idea of organised labour. There’s a preference for more migratory labour; they’re easier to control and contain. There’s a whole strata of so-called employment, and at the bottom you’ve got people being taken on very short term, often on very low pay…the minimum wage. One of the things the unions consistently argue for is direct employment, so people are taken on by a proper contractor, given a proper contract. One of the huge problems in the construction industry is your health: you’re five times more likely to be killed at work if you’re a construction worker. Last year there was something like sixty deaths. That’s the cowboy nature of the industry manifested.

Is there are resentment between Liverpool builders and migrant builders, from countries like Poland?
There is certainly those who would foster that resentment – the BNP and others. Migrant workers are readily identifiable when you talk to them, so there’s a tendency for some to identify them as the problem. What they won’t they won’t address is it’s the nature of the contract, the nature of the employer. Agencies pay Polish workers half of what we would consider the going rate. So you can’t address the problems of the local workers without addressing the problems of the migrant workers.

There have been two deaths on sites in the city so far this year. After the second, a representative of the Health and Safety Executive said more deaths should be expected before the Capital of Culture preparations are finished. How do you feel about comments like that?
It shows the problem we have with the HSE. They don’t have enough people on the ground. The issue of them monitoring what’s going on and enforcing regulations is a real problem. I worked for a subcontractor on a job last summer. Their attitude to health and safety was a once-weekly toolbox talk, which lasted about five minutes. One of the foremen said: “Right, we’ll get this shite out the way and then you lazy bastards can get back to work”.

There seems to be a Catch-22 situation, in that the best workplaces are unionised, but the employers are hostile to workers organising, How can this be overcome?
There’s got to be a campaign which involves the active members of the trade union, who to be honest are very few in number. I’m actually one of the ‘youngsters’ in my union branch…I’m fifty-two. There’s a problem because of the way it’s gone over the last twenty or thirty years, in terms of union activity, the number of union activists. We’ve got to create links – for example if we’re looking at the issue of regeneration – with the community groups out there, who are concerned with issues of employment, issues of equality and the rest of it. There’s a common interest in addressing some of these issues. We also have to look at much more overtly political campaigns. We tend to get tied up with reacting to issues on one or two sites, we’ve got to look at an equality agenda for all.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Inland Empire (15)

Written and Directed by David Lynch
Screening at FACT (6th-12th April 2007)

If you've seen a David Lynch film before, you'll know what to expect from Inland Empire. If not, don't imagine you're going to leave the cinema thinking 'that was a good story' or even that it was a story at all. Deep in the pit of your stomach, you'll probably feel unsettled by the collage of visuals and sounds, but you won't be able to connect them to anything in your everyday life.

Ok, so here I am, about to attempt a brief outline of a three hour David Lynch film. Wow.
There could be a plot here. The possibility can't be entirely discounted. But if there is, it might well take five screenings to work it out. That's fifteen hours of your life, and about twenty-five pounds. Who's got that kind of time and money on their hands?

Laura Dern plays Hollywood actress Nikki Grace, who has been offered a lead role in a film called 'On High in Blue Tomorrows'. When she begins an affair with co-star Devon (Justin Theroux), they discover that their project is actually a remake of a film that was never finished, because "something inside the story" went wrong, as director Kingsley (Jeremy Irons) puts it.

That's the first hour. After that, the story kind of collapses in on itself, the threads unravel, and it's probably best to give up trying to understand what's going on. After all,there is definitely some perverse pleasure in watching a film so far from the usual Hollywood formula that it almost hurts.

But it is just another extension of Lynch's own formula. The man is clearly transfixed by his own cleverness, but if people don't understand what the hell he's going on about, what kind of cleverness is that? So why does he keep making this kind of film? Well, obviously it makes quite a bit of money. It also scratches his itch to be 'weird' - i.e. not like the mainstream. But if a writer/director isn't saying anything, or trying to explore their own psychology, then 'weirdness' is just another trick, a knack Lynch has perfected over thirty years.

Paired with a great writer, Mr Lynch might make a great film. Unless and until that happens, he's going to keep making weird films.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Catch A Fire (12A)

Directed by Phillip Noyce
Written by Shawn Slovo
Screening at FACT from 24th March - 5th April 2007

This tale of Apartheid era South Africa pairs Rabbit-Proof Fence director Phillip Noyce with writer Shawn Slovo, whose father was one of Nelson Mandela's right hand men in the struggle against the white Afrikaner regime.

Based on real events, the film focuses on the life of
Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke). At the beginning, he is a foreman at the Secunda oil refinery, who tries to ignore politics so he can afford nice things for his wife Precious (Bonnie Mbuli) and their two young children. When the military wing of the African National Congress attack his strategically important workplace, first Patrick then his wife are pulled in and interrogated. Patrick comes to believe that there will be no future for his kids unless Apartheid is brought down, and gets involved in another attempt to blow the refinery sky high.

Catch A Fire is a tension-racked and intensely moving account of Apartheid's last days, which confirms Noyce's role as one of Hollywood's most socially-conscious directors (though there isn't much competition for that honour). The way he treats historical details with thought, care and respect is reminiscent of Ken Loach's best work, and the scenes between Patrick Chamusso and his police interrogator (Tim Robbins) are distinguished by fine acting on both sides.

However, Noyce seems to have taken Shawn Slovo's version of events at face value, despite the fact her father is in the screenplay! As the white leader of the South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo formed an alliance with the black nationalist ANC, becoming a commander of the mainly black armed forces.

When Mandela was released from prison and became the first black President of South Africa, he made Slovo housing minister. But that government introduced policies which benefited a narrow layer of black businessmen and women, whilst condemning working class blacks (and whites) to ever greater poverty. Yes, they have a vote every few years nowadays, but they are learning to relish that just as little as we do in the northern hemisphere.

In his autobiography, Mandela bragged:
'There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?'

Great though Catch A Fire is artistically, the last fifteen minutes only serve the fiction that purely national or ethnic 'liberation' movements are the answer for poor people in colonised nations, and that we can all rest easy because everything is coming up roses in South Africa.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

200 Private Cops For Liverpool?

It looks like Liverpool will have 200 privately funded police in 2008 – Capital of Culture year.

The Chief Constable of Merseyside Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, says he wants to put a cop on every corner during the festivities. In practice, this apparently means he needs £9.3m extra to recruit another 200 officers. The Government is currently refusing to pay up, so Hogan-Howe is looking for other ways to enlarge his gang.

Hogan-Howe set out his case in yesterday's Daily Post, announcing that the expected 20 million visitors to the city in 2008 will mean extra police are needed. This is no surprise. Many of the tourists will be a lot richer than the vast majority of Liverpudlians, so they will be an obvious target for people looking to supplement their incomes.

The Chief Constable claimed 'there will be no privileges or concessions made to those making an offer'. However, this is very hard to believe. At the end of the day, businesses care about one thing – making a profit. Any business which donates all or part of £9 million would be putting themselves at a serious disadvantage compared to their competitors, so they will be wanting precisely the 'privileges' and 'concessions' which Hogan-Howe mentions.

At the moment, the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce – which represents the interests of Liverpool business as a whole – is against the idea. Their chief executive, Jack Stopforth, told the Daily Post that 'general policing must remain a public service', and 'Liverpool/Merseyside should be able to draw down funds from central government'. In other words, make UK Plc pay, not Liverpool business. But while Stopforth doesn't want to pay up, others may be considering it, if they reckon they can stitch-up a good deal.

Much of Liverpool city centre now belongs to one man - the Duke of Westminster. His 'Liverpool One' development is due to get its grand opening next year, and the stage is being set for the Duke's 250 year Reich. £9m is a drop in the ocean for the UK's third richest man, and he could consider it a worthwhile investment.

Privately funded police aren't a new thing in Britain. In the 1700s, the owners of the West India company paid for the 'Thames River Police' to protect their port from impoverished looters. The 'Bow Street Runners' in London's east end started off as fifteen men with pistols, who guaranteed their capitalist clients a fifteen minute response time to their calls for help, in return for 'blood money'. When Robert Peel got back to England after defending Ireland from the Irish, he became Home Secretary. In 1829, he established a state police system in London, joining up the dots of the various private forces. These 'cops' (from the French 'caper', to seize or abduct) were drawn from the ranks of the poor, and soon became despised by most of the working class they began persecuting. Not long afterwards, Peel brought his favourite kind of pigs over from Ireland, and started breeding them in Tamworth. The rest is history.

Then as now, the police are used against working class people, whether they are trying to take back what has been stolen from them by the capitalist system, or protesting against injustices the system throws up (war, poor health care, abuse of animals). In theory though not in practice, the police are subject to control by the whole population. If the rich are allowed to buy their own bodyguards, even this supposed freedom will disappear.

The twisted logic of capitalism is being laid bare before our eyes. Marches and letter-writing campaigns are not enough. The struggle has to be taken into workplaces and into the streets. The working class has to unite, so we can rid ourselves of these parasites!

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