Thursday, April 29, 2010

Chronicles Of Long Kesh

Written by Martin Lynch
Directed by Lisa May and Martin Lynch
Everyman Theatre (27th April - 1st May 2010)

What do you get if you cross prison life during the civil war euphemistically known as the 'Troubles' with dancey 1960s soul hits? Well, you get Chronicles of Long Kesh, for better and worse.

Northern Ireland playwright Martin Lynch interviewed former prisoners, prison workers, and family members whilst researching this play, presumably in an attempt to make it as believable as possible. On a barely there set, five men and one woman act out a series of sketches, narrated by nervous and reluctant screw Freddie Gillespie (Billy Clark).

Lynch's emphasis is very much on humanising Catholic and Protestant fighter alike, to make them more than the pariahs they were to some and the heroes they were to others. The result is that all the characters are likeable in their own way, but none of them feel real. This is largely because - with the exception of Freddie who flipped a coin on the Hobson's choice of prison officer or cop when his wife got pregnant - we don't see or hear about any of their dramatic life choices.

Lynch is very mindful of how significant his subject matter is. As he told Culture Northern Ireland:
"A prison like Long Kesh...when you look at it in the wider context in terms of its impact on this community, over 20,000 prisoners saw the inside of it, from both backgrounds, Catholic and Protestant. Then you had something like 5,000 warders who worked in the prison, and when you add up all the numbers of family members who visited the prison, you're probably talking upwards of 80,000 people who have all been inside the confines of Long Kesh. So it's a huge political, sociological dimension to our society, and it's a story that I've wanted to tackle for some time."
Unfortunately, Lynch's treatment of the subject is rather limited. At a key moment he paraphrases John Lennon's "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans". While that may be a mildly amusing quip, it's not an adequate explanation of why someone would try to kill people, overthrow a government, or go on hunger strike.

This is the essential problem with the production. Martin Lynch has taken an intense political struggle, and turned it into something not even apolitical, but anti-political, as if problematic situations just 'happen' to people, and they can't - or shouldn't be - analysed any further. This doesn't just make for bad philosophy, it also inevitably leads to the weakest artistic moments. We are presented with characters who are at least suspected of involvement in shootings and bombings, and we are expected to chuckle along as they tackle yet another Motown hit.

There are good performances to witness and laughs to be had, so Chronicles of Long Kesh is quite enjoyable, but beyond that, it is of little value. Perhaps Lynch set himself an impossible task - to reflect the life of a vast community over a thirty year period in just over two hours. But perhaps he found it too hard to properly get to grips with such divisive events, especially at a time of recession, when sectarian fighting is raising its ugly head once more.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Workers' Fightback - "No more illusions, war against the rich"

On Saturday, workers and young people around the world will celebrate May Day - a festival of resistance which traces its origins back to the struggle for the eight hour day, and the state murder of the 'Haymarket martyrs' in 1880s Chicago.

Saturday is also one year since the first Workers' Fightback bulletin, which opened with news on the Visteon car workers' factory occupation, resistance to the sacking of Linamar union convenor Rob Williams, and the emergence of direct action parent power in Greenwich, London.

Since then, the UK has witnessed more occupations in schools and universities, as well as the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle Of Wight. Large-scale strikes in civil service, post and air travel have won support from other workers, but provoked the mass media's wrath, and have ultimately been restrained by a trade union bureaucracy which makes a living by cutting and enforcing deals with bosses and governments.

The continuing economic crisis has seen this level of resistance matched and surpassed in many countries. But without a doubt, international financiers and class struggle activists alike are focusing their attention on Greece, which is increasingly being seen as a test case for imposing massive structural spending cuts (or resisting them, depending on your perspective).

The Greek economy was amongst the worst hit by the first wave of the crisis, and nominally centre-left Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou has formally requested loans running into the tens of billions of dollars from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. In return, both institutions are demanding even deeper cuts than Papandreou passed just six weeks ago.

Even then, his agenda forced union leaders to call general strikes, and there were many violent clashes with police. But those single day actions failed to prevent the March cuts, and such a strategy would surely fail this time round. An April 22nd public sector general strike saw tens of thousands of workers demonstrate, chanting slogans such as "No more illusions - war against the rich".

There have been victories over the last year - we can look at the Lewisham Bridge parents' triumph in saving their children's school, for example. But these highs have been few and far between, and the defeats keep coming faster, with greater intensity.

Amidst all this gloom, perhaps some brick workers in the Kurdish part of Turkey can shed light on the path ahead. Having worked on a fixed wage for four years (despite inflation running at around 10%), the Diyarbakir workers were offered 7.5%, amounting to an effective 2.5% pay cut for 2010, even if 2006-09 inflation is not considered. They took a two week unofficial 'wildcat' strike action, and delegated fellow workers to put their demands forward. The result was a 28% pay increase.

Illusions in the profit system, politicians and the top-down trade union structure are rapidly being shed by millions upon millions of people. In the period to come, nothing less than the formation of a new, international working class movement is required, a movement organised on a rank-and-file basis, a movement that is directly controlled by its own membership. This movement must reject both capitalism and the division of the planet into rival nation states, and demand working class control of the global economy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Terre'Blanche, "Black Boers" and Class War

On 3rd April, notorious South African white supremacist Eugène Terre'Blanche was murdered on his farm by two young black workers. It has been claimed that Terre'Blanche (whose French surname ironically means 'white land') owed the men months of back wages, and even that there was a sexual element. But whatever the specifics, the political storm surrounding the case has made it clear that social class is the chasm dividing 'the new South Africa'.

Terre'Blanche gained some infamy in the UK with his appearance on one of 'Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends', and Theroux's fellow documentarist Nick Broomfield also examined 'His Big White Self'. But in reality, Terre'Blanche had long been a marginal political figure.

He founded the Afrikaner Resistance Movement in 1973, in response to apartheid President P.W. Botha's perceived liberalism. As the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela continued on the long march to power, Terre'Blanche threatened civil war, and led his supporters into battle with police at the 'Battle of Ventersdorp'. But impoverished blacks were rebelling in the townships, and it was clear to the white elite that they had no choice other than handing over the reins to Mandela, a representative of the aspirational "non-European bourgeoisie" (as Mandela had described his coterie as far back as 1956).

Terre'Blanche did not mellow post-apartheid. In 1997, he was jailed for the attempted murder of a black security guard, and four years later he was back in prison for beating a farm worker so badly that he was left brain damaged. With some white farmers doing well under the new system, Terre'Blanche was now something of an embarrassment.

Ok then, a racist thug is dead; so far, so good riddance. But the reaction of the ruling African National Congress says much more about the state of contemporary South African society. President Jacob Zuma (the party's third, following Mandela and Thabo Mbeki) denounced the "terrible deed", called for calm, and warned South Africans "not to allow agents provocateurs to take advantage of this situation by inciting or fuelling racial hatred.” However, that is exactly what ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema has been doing, by quoting lyrics from apartheid-era song 'Dubula Ibhunu' ('Kill The Boer', with the term 'Boer' meaning 'white farmer').

In government, the ANC has overseen the funnelling of new international investment to a small layer of black business leaders, while poverty and inequality has increased amongst working people of all ethnicities.

Last month saw the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, when police killed sixty-nine unarmed black protesters, giving birth to greater black militancy as they did so. The ANC has traded on the memory of Sharpeville ever since, and indeed Mandela signed the post-apartheid constitution there. But February 2010 saw riots, as demonstrators against deprivation and ANC hypocrisy clashed with the majority black police force, who responded with gunfire, in a sinister echo of their apartheid predecessors.

'Kill The Boer' has now been ruled unconstitutional by the high court, but today's marchers sing a new song: 'Amabhunu amnyama asenzela I -worry' ('Black Boers give us worry'). Amidst the global recession, President Zuma is defending white as well as black elements amongst the rich, while young leaders such as Malema feels the need to channel street anger into the safe cul-de-sac of racism. But the truth is becoming obvious to the broad masses of people, and the stage is set for an explosion in class-based conflict.

Also published in issue 13 of The Commune.

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