Daily Archives: April 25, 2009

Back To The Thirties, As Britain Makes A Right Turn Towards Depression Disaster – Column 25.4.09


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.4.09

DON’T LOOK NOW: but as someone with a bit of an interest in the history of the twentieth century, I am beginning to experience a frightening sense of deja vu.   Eighty years ago, after all, both Britain and the United States faced an economic crash as severe as this one; and in both cases, the collapse of a “bubble” in the stock market and the financial sector led rapidly to a sharp and painful decline in real economic activity – to falling prices, failing businesses, and unemployment for millions of previously hard-working citizens.

In the 1930’s, though, the two nations produced very different political responses to the crisis.  America turned sharply to the left, placing its faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt and his interventionist “New Deal”.   Britain, by contrast, moved sharply to the right, and stayed there throughout a grim decade of misery for many, starvation for some, and economic activity so depressed that many industrial areas wore a look of poverty and shabbiness into the early 1960’s.

And now, to my distress, I think I can see the same pattern beginning to emerge again, in the aftermath of Alistair Darling’s frighteningly frail crisis budget.  Following two terms of George W. Bush, America has just moved decisively leftward, electing a new Democratic President who both speaks with tremendous moral authority, and also seems unafraid of massive state intervention designed to keep the American economy moving, to prevent the worst extremes of social damage and division, and to make some structural shifts towards an economy better designed for a 21st century future.

But in Britain – well, just look at the situation in which we find ourselves, as Gordon Brown’s dying government is steadily torn to shreds by a Westminster media village now baying for change.  On one hand, we have a Labour government which has failed, both morally and practically, precisely because it made too deep a compromise with unregulated capital markets.  On the other, we have a Conservative opposition, now almost certain to win the next Westminster election, which is supported, in its bid for power, by a growing roar of right-wing commentary which evidently sees the coming of a new Conservative government under crisis conditions as an opportunity for once again hacking back the British public sector, while leaving high earners, in particular, to dispose of their income as they please.

The self-pitying roar of the media elites when threatened with measures like the new higher tax-rate for those earning more than £150,000 a year is, of course, one of the most unintentionally hilarious features of British public life; it is particularly entertaining to hear them dismissing this measure as an “attack on talent” at precisely the moment when most of Britain’s well-paid boss-class have been revealed as having no talent at all, except for paying themselves excessive sums.   But the influence these people wield in shaping public opinion is not funny; and neither is the fact that they now have their friends in the totally discredited credit-ratings business – the ones who detected nothing wrong with so many failing banks – threatening the whole British people with the loss of our collective triple-A status, unless we elect the kind of government they like.

Now of course, any new government coming to power in Britain over the next 15 months will have to make deep public spending cuts.  But it seems to me a recipe for disaster to have those cuts made by a party, and a rabble of privileged supporters, who are so profoundly historically indifferent to the fact that the arguments against cutting public expenditure at the height of a depression are almost as powerful as those for doing so, from the straight moral argument that it is simply wrong to make the some of the most vulnerable people in our society pay the price of  economic depression, to much more complex arguments about the way in which, in advanced economies, public and private sector investment works together to sustain economic creativity.   But when the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are in full cry for a new age of austerity in the public realm, and low taxes for the suffering rich, then the crucial British swing voter, that unlovely combination of avarice, ignorance and snobbery, is notoriously unable to resist their call.

Except, of course, in Scotland; for if Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling want to survey the whole picture of the ruin they have wrought, then they might as well add, as the cherry on the cake of their misery, the probable wreckage of the Union between Scotland and England.  For deep psychological and cultural reasons, the vast majority of Scots will never take the negative view of public spending so easily embraced by the Telegraph, and so ingrained in the DNA of the Conservative Party south of the border; and for  that reason, when a new Cameron government begins to implement draconian cuts, their actions will, over a few years, almost certainly create unsustainable levels of conflict between Holyrood and Westminster.

Of course, under such difficult economic circumstances, this will not be a particularly happy ending, even for the SNP.   But if the lessons of the 1930’s and 1980’s have been forgotten in the heartlands of British politics, they have not been forgotten in the places, including Scotland, where the decisions made in those years inflicted most pain.  The new generation of Tory opinion-makers in London may be looking forward to a new age of sado-monetarism, in other words.  But now, they embrace that option at the risk of losing Scotland to a resurgent SNP.  And when and if that happens, they are likely to be very angry indeed.  Angry  enough, for instance, to take away Scotland’s chance of a triple-A rating; and to make sure we don’t get it back, for a couple of generations at least.


Behaviour Week 2: Bullet Catch, Gregor McGregor, The Bagwell In Me


JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEHAVIOUR: WEEK 2 at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.4.09

Bullet Catch  4 stars ****
Gregor MacGregor   3 stars ***
The Bagwell In Me  3 stars ***

WHEN ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Jackie Wylie launched her new Behaviour festival at the Arches, she promised a feast of work that would not only crash the boundaries between art-forms, but would challenge the idea of any fixed distinction between behaviour on stage, and the kind of performance we all put up with friends, colleagues and lovers,  every day of our lives.  And in this final week of the event,  she delivers a cluster of shows that fulfil that remit to perfection.

Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch, for instance, patrols the boundary between straight theatre and a pure showbiz conjuring act.  With the help of a dazzling assistant recruited from the audience, he performs weird tricks involving cards and floating tables, and finally prepares to attempt the most daring of all, the trick where the illusionist catches a bullet between his teeth.

The real complexity of Drummond’s show, though, lies in his exploration of a further boundary, the one between the conjuring trick and real life.  Many illusionists have died trying to perform the “bullet catch”.  And in considering the fate of one of them, wh died on stage in 1909,  Drummond leads us into a startlingly deep reflection on the mysterious relationship between performance and despair, and between the intense life of the stage, and the sudden blackness of death.

Al Seed’s latest show is a far less polished work than Bullet Catch, but no less interesting.  In a radical departure from his usual physical theatre, Seed and his partner on sound and visuals, Guy Veale, take the format of the simple lantern lecture, and turn it into an astonishing meditation on the power of imagination to shape and change reality, and to build new futures.  Seed’s subject is Gregor McGregor, a crazy Scottish adventurer of the early 19th century, who reinvented himself as the ruler of an imaginary Central American kingdom, persuading many gullible investors and migrants to invest in his non-existent realm.  Seed takes this story as inspiration for a dazzling series of thoughts and images about utopian thinking in general, about investment as a gesture of imagination, and about how nations are dreamed of and made.   It’s a potent topic for these times, in Scotland and elsewhere; and although Seed’s script still seems like a first draft, read from rough printout, the potential of this show is immense.

As for Ann Liv Young of New York – well, like her previous work at the Arches, her latest show looks like a slow-mo collision between a 1960’s New York happening and a modern gents-only club night, with a mix of serious identity politics thrown in.  In a u-shaped dressing-room of a performance space, Ann Liv delivers a barrage of loud song, raunchy dance, full-on sexual imagery and constant self-interruption; if you want to see the idea of “interrogating performance” made flesh, this is it.

Somewhere in there, though, is a strong spine of thought about the triangular relationship between the first US President George Washington, his wife Martha, and their black slave Oney, all reimagined for the age of President Obama; and those who think there’s no serious thematic intent behind Ann Liv’s crotch-shots, her nudity, her deliberate narrative nonsense, and her ferocious assault on the sexual secrets at the heart of American culture, may be making the mistake of their lives.