Daily Archives: August 7, 2010

What Century Is This? David Cameron’s Premiership Triggers An Outbreak Of Sheer Snobbery – Column 7.8.10


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 7.8.10

IT WAS THREE MONTHS AGO today that Britain woke up from its  post-general-election hangover, to find the political landscape shfting in ways more fundamental than anyone had expected; and although David Cameron’s premiership lost its first few fragments of shine this week, in the difficult territory of Afghanistan and Iran, it has to be acknowledged that he has made an unusually gilded and flawless transition into power.

It’s important not to overstate the significance of  David Cameron’s good press, of course; the Westminster media pack has a repellent habit of rolling over and purring for several months – and sometimes for two or three years – whenever a new government takes on the seductive trappings of power.

Yet there’s something about the welcome David Cameron has received this summer that is both distinctive, and chilling; and it is the brazen, unrepentant snobbery of some of the commentary on his performance to date.   First, in those tense days after the election, there was the visible sense of ease between many senior journalists and the new government, very similar to the visible harmony between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.  Then there was the drip-drip of positive comparison with the manners and demeanour of Gordon Brown, who is a moody character, but hardly so ill brought up, as a son of the manse, that – as has been alleged in some places – he never writes a thankyou letter.

Then there came an astonishing Guardian column from sometime socialist Martin Kettle, describing Cameron as “a man of grace, who has been good for Britain”, and repeating some of the most negative gossip about Brown; and a series of BBC political shows – most notably last Saturday’s Week In Westminster -commenting favourably on Cameron’s obvious suitability for the role of Premier, given his social and educational background.  “We used to joke before the election about Cameron being “born to rule””, one journalist quoted a Whitehall mandarin as saying, last week.  “But now, we can see that it’s true.”

So what on earth are we to make of this astonishing 21st century outbreak of a kind of class deference, and a set of class assumptions, that would have been regarded as slightly old-fashioned back in the 1880’s?  Simply, I suppose, that political and economic change never comes alone, but always reflects, and in turn reinforces, much deeper changes in our thinking about what a human being is, and what we can become.  In the postwar years, there was a broad presumption – born of the long march of Enlightenment thinking, and the bitter experience of Depression and war – that by the exertion of common sense, and the appliance of science and democracy, societies could be made to move in an ever more progressive direction, becoming more equal, more open, more compassionate, and more committed to the security and fulfilment of every citizen.

After the radical social revolution of the 1960’s, though, and the oil shock of the mid-1970’s, that belief began to go into reverse, as people began to see the progressive project as having “gone too far”, or as simply too expensive.  The election of Margaret Thatcher was both a symptom and a cause of that change; so was the hugely influential publication, in 1976, of Richard Dawkins’s zeitgeist book The Selfish Gene, which rapidly became the bar-room bible of reactionary types who wanted to portray human capacities as primarily inherited, resistant to social influences, overwhelmingly competitive, and strongly gender-specific.

And both of these changes helped legitimise the vast and growing economic inequality that so damages the life-chances of most children born in this country today; the growth, that is, of a dominant class of high earners, with household incomes in six figures or more, who consistently portray their own experience as “middle class” and  normal, when in fact – like 19th century landowners – they constitute a tiny aristocracy of wealth, representing less than 1% of the population.

It should therefore be pretty self-evident, to any thinking citizen, that the overwhelming dominance of that small class – in business, government, the national media, and the new coalition cabinet – is an affront to any true concept of democracy, and unsustainable in terms of its ability to represent the real interests of ordinary British people.  For the moment, the six-figure elite exert a vice-like grip on our self-image; the secret of their success in shaping political life, over several decades, lies in their ability to bamboozle people struggling by on ordinary salaries of 25,000 or 30,000 a year into believing that they are living in the same world as the Camerons or the Blairs, and that it is right for them to be represented by people who embody their highest material aspirations.

In truth, though, it is not right.  As we are rapidly learning, it is dangerous to every essential public service and benefit on which ordinary earners depend, as taxpayers and citizens; but which those protected by a giant bank-balance do not need, and are willing to sacrifice in the interests of economic theory, or a vague and mistaken belief that there is no reason to prefer professionally staffed public services, delivered of right, to the charitable giving of Victorian-style philanthropy.  Of course, the philanthropy of the rich is better than their meanness, as Warren Buffett and his friends so amply demonstrated this week.

It has nothing to do, though, with democracy, or human dignity, or any of those fundamental values of liberty, equality and fraternity which inspired the long modernising march of our society, from the 18th century to the 20th.   And if we do not wake from our post-modern dream, get out from in front of the television, and start fighting again to preserve and develop those rights, they will disappear from our world; and we will be left tugging the forelock again, and thanking those well-mannered gentlemen very kindly for their decency in chucking the odd sovereign into our begging-bowl, or for paying us poverty wages, as we work until we drop.


Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl, White, The Track Of The Cat

Flesh And Blood & Fish And Fowl
Traverse @ St. Stephens (Venue 101)
4 stars ****
Traverse @ Scottish Book Trust (Venue 346)
4 stars ****
The Track Of The Cat
C (Venue 34)
3 stars ***

IT’S AN ORDINARY SORT OF DAY in the office; or then again, maybe not.  The sign over the door says Convenience Foods; and Geoff climbs out of the waste-paper dumpster, ready for another day of futile battle with all the awkward little objects that dominate his working life – including his less-than-gorgeous female colleague, a woman with whom he seems locked in a terminal battle of half-hearted lust and loathing.

This is the opening scene of Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl, created by Philadelphia-based theatre artists Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford; and to begin with, it seems like a familiar piece of office satire, pitched somewhere between inspired post-modern clowning and situation comedy.

It turns out, though, that this superb pair of theatre-makers have more to say; for after half an hour or so, strange things begin to happen at Convenience Foods, as green tropical plants burst from the filing cabinets, and stuffed animals rear up over the open-plan partitions, staring glassily at the human race in all its glory.  The music and lighting grow stranger and deeper, and the ravages of nature ever more exuberant; until the set looks like one of those images of an old Detroit skyscraper, sprouting trees and shrubs through its once-sparkling windows.

As a piece of theatre, Flesh and Blood & Fish And Fowl is short, clever, spectacular, and brilliantly executed.  And as a piece of social commentary, it is even better than that; not unfamiliar, in its 21st century pessimism about a brittle urban civilisation on the brink of destruction, but full of rich irony, as the plasticised world of convenience food is swept away in a torrent of fur, flesh and foliage, and the powerful landscape of North America reasserts itself, at last.

Catherine Wheels’s exquisite new 40-minute show White – made for small children, and playing at the Scottish Book Trust – is also about a controlled and slightly bloodless environment invaded by outside forces; but in the optimistic world of theatre for the under-4’s, the invasion is seen as a positive and fertile thing, if a little scary at first.  In Gill Robertson’s meticulous production, the show’s creator Andy Manley, and his collaborator Ian Cameron, play Cotton and Wrinkle, two little white men in white bobble-hats who live in a white world of white bird-boxes, nurturing white eggs that hatch into birds with fluffy white feathers; until a strange red egg falls from the sky, plunging their world into an ever-brightening riot of colour.

As a metaphor for change, and resistance to change, the idea is perfectly pitched, simple, clear, witty, and gorgeous to look at.  What is really striking, though, is the sheer technical perfection of the show’s pacing and unfolding, as the tiny children who are its target audience follow the story in every detail.  I still don’t quite know how some of the show’s transformations into colour are achieved; that’s a secret for the cast, the director, and designer Shona Reppe. However it’s done, though, the effect is delightful; playful, wise, mysterious, and full of joy.

Over at C in Chambers Street, meanwhile, Scottish-based director Graeme Maley and writer Chris Fittock launch their new 75-minute stage version of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s fine American novel of 1949, The Track Of The Cat.  Like Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl, the show seems preoccupied with the fragility of European-style civilisation set against the the mighty landscape of the new world, as it tells the story of a Nevada farming family gradually decimated by internal conflict, and a growing obsession with the hunt for a huge black panther said to haunt their valley in winter.

At this end of the Fringe – modestly funded at best – the standard of acting is often uneven; and the decision to have the whole family of five men and three women played by youngish female actors in black lacey slips creates such a distance of imagery between the story and the performance that they sometimes lose contact altogether.  As the narrative takes hold, though, the visual dissonance becomes less confusing, and more interesting.  And there’s some powerful live music from Edinburgh-based indie musician Benni Hemm Hemm – the only man on stage, and increasingly a key voice in the family’s dialogue with a natural world that both reflects their inner tensions, and generates the pressures that drive them to breaking-point.

Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl until 28 August (p.252)
White until 29 August (p.18)
The Track Of The Cat until 30 August (p.298)