Daily Archives: August 28, 2010

No Hero, No Buffoon: The Difficulty Of Taking A Balanced View, As Jack McConnell Retires – Column 28.8.10

_______________________________________

JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.8.10
_______________________________________

ON THURSDAY EVENING, AT AROUND seven o’clock, the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell, announced his decision to retire from electoral politics at the end of the current Scottish Parliament, and to concentrate on his activities as a working peer in the House of Lords, with a special interest in international development.  Within minutes, of course, the internet was loud with the noise of the comment-strand pundits  having their say; and a rude and strident sound it was.

“Good riddance”, they roared, and “Thank god for that – useless man”.   Many accused McConnell of treachery and cowardice simply for belonging to the Labour Party, rather than the SNP.  And many made bitter and jeering references to his various pensions, and the £300 a day stipend for which he will be eligible when he attends the House of Lords.  At around £60,000 a year in pensions, plus another £30,000 if he spends 100 days a year in the Lords, McConnell’s likely earnings are in fact modest by boss-class standards.

Yet still, in a climate where any money paid to a politician is routinely seen as too much, that seems to most people like a lavish income for a man like McConnell, an ordinary boy from a sheep-farm in Arran who decided to go into politics, and who became, from 2002 to 2007, the leading politician in Scotland’s first elected parliament for 300 years.  There’s snobbery in some of what is written about McConnell, in other words.  But there’s also a bitter and enduring conviction that most politicians are up to no good; and that the more they need to be paid a professional salary and expenses for their work, the less trustworthy and disinterested they are likely to be.

And in that sense, it seems to me that there is something archetypal about Jack McConnell’s career, and the way in which it sums up some of the weaknesses and disconnections in our present political culture.   In  the first place, he came to power as an ordinary kind of guy at a time when, for leading politicians, ordinary was no longer good enough.  If he had remained a schoolteacher, he would probably have become the headmaster of a large comprehensive.  He might have earned very little less than he does now, and he would have retired in a warm glow of congratulations and good wishes; his private life, unless it involved extremely abusive behaviour, would have remained his own.  Because McConnell went into politics, though, he was compelled to make a full and humiliating public confession of a minor extramarital affair; and then, like all politicians, to endure, year in and year out,  the casual personal abuse of people who have never met him, and have no idea of his real moral character.

Then secondly, Jack McConnell was a Labour politician at a time when his party was running out of intellectual steam, trapped between a New Labour leadership locked in an absurd sweetheart relationship with runaway capitalism, and an Old Labour tradition that no longer resonated with voters.  Like all Labour leaders of his generation, McConnell bears some responsibility for the party’s failure to get to grips with the ideological argument, and to start reinventing new forms of social democracy for the 21st century.  But from his first election to Stirling Council, back in 1982, McConnell always presented himself as a practical politician, rather than a party intellectual; and always asked to be judged on policies delivered and changes made, rather than on ideas floated and speeches delivered.

And the third and final irony of his career lies in the fact that he was that kind of practical politician, in an age when most voters – guided by spin and image-building –  have all but lost the art of making any realistic assessment of actual political achievement.  In truth, Jack McConell’s political record, particularly as First Minister, is a finely balanced one.  On the debit side, he failed to energise and expand Scotland’s private sector during the years of plenty, wore a pin-striped kilt in New York with a lamentable lack of style, and – perhaps most unforgivably – sacked some of the most taleted politicians in Scotland from his cabinet, in order to reduce the chances of internal disagreement and dissent.

On the credit side, he presided over five years of  well-negotiated coalition government, worked tirelessly to represent Scotland on the international stage, and – outstandingly – faced down some of the darkest forces in his own party to honour a coalition commitment to introduce proportional representation in Scottish local government.  This last measure, at a stroke, destroyed the old Labour fiefdoms in council chambers across Scotland; and after just one election held under the new system, we are still only beginning to glimpse the extent of the revolution it entails.

Yet somehow, our public culture does not allow for the recognition of such a complicated real-life career.  Instead, we are supposed to takes sides: to lionise McConnell as a heroic and brilliant champion of humanity if we are among his friends, and to dismiss him as a corrupt buffoon if we are not, when in fact we all know that the truth lies somewhere between those extremes.

Even in these sceptical times, in other words – when the relationship between people, parties and politicians is all but broken – we often seem to find it possible, at the funerals of dead  politicians, to imagine that they at least intended to do some good.  Yet we seem increasingly unable to believe anything so positive of those politicians who are still alive, and drawing their salaries.  At just 50 , the new Lord McConnell is likely to be around for many decades to come.  And that means that many of us may not live to read the obituaries that will one day tell us what we should have thought of him; if we had judged the living man with all the wisdom, generosity, and balance we typically bring to our assessments of those who are gone, and who can no longer even try to change the world we live in, for better or worse.

ENDS ENDS

Waiting For Lefty

THEATRE
Waiting For Lefty
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
3 stars ***

ON A FRINGE where “political theatre” often involves nothing but a violent expression of anger, it comes as a pleasure – and even a joy – to see this young company from King’s College, London, present such an ambitious and thoughtful production of Clifford Odets’s 1935 one-act classic about a group of taxi drivers, working for the same company, who can no longer live on the pittance they are paid, and who have to decide what to do about it.  In a brief hour, as the men wait to hear from an activist called Lefty who never appears, the scene alternates between their shared discussions in a union meeting, and brief insights into their fraught and poverty-stricken private lives;  no play can ever have made audiences feel more clearly the link between economic exploitation outside the home, and private misery within it.

Some of the young eight-strong cast do better than others, at playing characters substantially older than themselves; and the switch from an American to a northern English voice doesn’t always work.  But in Michael Tucker’s production, all the actors seem tightly and impressively focussed on the main purpose of the show, which – in a phrase from Brecht’s Arturo Ui quoted on their website – is to rouse people confronted with injustice and exploitation to “learn how to see and not to gape; to act, instead of talking all day long.”

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 302

ENDS ENDS

Ma Joyce’s Tales From The Parlour

THEATRE
Ma Joyce’s Tales From The Parlour
Zoo Southside (Venue 82)
3 stars ***

THE POLITICS OF RACE often suggests – intentionally or otherwise – that “black culture” or “black experience” in Britain is a single phenomenon, rather than a hugely rich and varied one.  Victoria Evaristo’s low-key but interesting show highlights the experience of a black British character who is not young, is not male, does not live in London, and has no Caribbean family background; she is Liverpool born and bred, she lived a while in Africa with her Nigerian-born husband, and she is a mother and a grandmother, with strong views about family life.

She welcomes us into her parlour in the aftermath of her birthday party, although she doesn’t quite divulge her age.  She offers tea and crisps.  And for an hour or so, she reflects on her life, and on the pace of change in world where it was thought OK, when she was a child, to put her up on stage to sing a song called “I’m A Little Nigger Doll”; but where, now, she cannot even call herself “coloured”, but has to remember that she is “black”.

The play lacks any real sense of drama; Ma Joyce has no particular reason to be talking to us.  But there’s a sense of a character who has somehow never internalised the self-hatred that white culture often imposes on minority groups; with the help of her community, her city, her happy marriage, she has survived personal tragedy with her self-respect intact.  And her story comes as a powerful reminder that the history of black people in Britain has many faces; some of which reflect dignity, and wisdom, and strength, in quantities that can truly change the world.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 269

ENDS ENDS

Quality Control

THEATRE
Quality Control
Underbelly (Venue 61)
2 stars **

THERE IS A PLAY  ABOUT TWO Glasgow men with partners, having affairs on the side – one with another woman, the other with a young man.  There is the crayon factory where the two abused lovers work; and there are the dreams and nightmares that accompany the two doomed relationships, affectingly played out on a set that takes a few pieces of domestic plumbing – a bath, two washbasins – and maroons them in space.

Then there is the play about Quality Control, a shouty, aimless satire which involves a man dressed as giant crayon giving what is possibly the single worst performance on the Fringe.  If promising young Glasgow group proudExposure had stuck to the first play, they would have had a good three-star show on their hands.  But as it is – well, no.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p.281

ENDS ENDS

Face

THEATRE
Face
C soco  (Venue 348)
3 stars ***

OF ALL THE stories of sexual abuse and trafficking told on this year’s Fringe, none is more tragic than the history of the Korean “comfort women” who were forced, during the Second World War, to service the needs of the Imperial Japanese Army.  Tricked into leaving their homes, imprisoned, ill-treated, and raped thousands of times, these women not only endured a shocking wartime ordeal, but then lived through four decades of silence, during which a culture of shame about what had happened to them forbade them even to speak of it.

Haerry Kim’s solo show – written and performed by herself – is inspired by the courage of the first “comfort women” to speak out, back in the 1990’s.  Spoken in the voice of one of these women, who seeks to exorcise the ghosts of the past by drawing the faces of former “comfort women” she encounters at meetings, it presents the story of a typical abduction and rape, reflects on the postwar experience of the women, and features some wonderful visual imagery projected on a screen behind her still figure; images of sea and land, and of the women’s faces drawn in charcoal or pencil, lined, beautiful, magnificently feminine.  As a piece of theatre, the show lacks energy; there’s no sense of a real and necessary dramatic relationship between the speaker and the audience.  But it has weight, and dignity, and a vital story to tell; and many of the audience, on the night I saw it, were moved to tears.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 249

Others

THEATRE
Others
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
4 stars ****

THE LEEDS-BASED Paper Birds company are a remarkable bunch.  In 2008, this three-woman collective created In A Thousand Pieces, one of the first shows to look directly at British attitudes to the 21st-century sex-trafficking that goes on in their midst; and this year, they’ve come to Edinburgh with a new show, equally focussed on women’s lives, that takes an exciting if still tentative look at the huge differences in experience that may – or may not – create barriers to real female solidarity.

The show was created through a project which involved writing to a range of women who seemed to have very different lives from the Paper Birds team.   One is an Iranian woman, another a prisoner serving a sentence for an unnamed crime; and then there are the celebrities, divided from us by the apparently glittering prizes of wealth and fame.

With Scottish-based actress Maryam Hamidi added to the cast, the Paper Birds explore their material in their usual complex style, which is finely choreographed, but often looks casual and improvised to the point of whimsy.  They argue with Shane, the only man around, who is in charge of the music.  They cluster around an armchair to stare at the audience and tell us their impressions; and most strikingly, they move like a female human tide through and round and across a set full of small, isolated domestic details – framed pictures, a cupboard, a television set.  In the end, they seem to become absorbed by their dialogue with celebrity, to the exclusion of the other issues they raise.  For a show still in the early stages of development, though, Others is a memorably complex and interesting experience; and completely, forcefully female, from start to finish.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p.276

ENDS ENDS

Hot Mess

THEATRE
Hot Mess
Hawke + Hunter (Venue 347)
4 stars ****

IT’S TWO YEARS since Ella Hickson first exploded onto the festival scene with her magnificent monologue show Eight; and during that time, she has become recognised as one of Britain’s leading young playwrights.  Her latest Fringe project – staged in a basement club in Picardy Place – reflects familiar themes of twentysomething love and sex; but it’s presented with great skill and poise, in a beautifully-paced production that never flags, over a taut 90 minutes.

The story of Hot Mess concerns a crisis in the relationship between a brother and sister who struggle to let one another go, not least because the brother is a strange, celibate figure who finds physical relationships almost impossible.  She has stayed in the small island town where they grew up, he has been away in London; but when he returns to find her locked in a passionate love-affair with a good-looking summer visitor, he is filled with resentment and anger.  And then there is a fourth character, a cheerfully promiscuous island girl for whom sex is literally just play, a late-night, post-club form of recreation.

What’s most interesting about the play is its exploration – more hinted at than fully developed – of how the experience of sex can range from the completely meaningless to the dangerously overcharged, and the impossibly threatening.  The in-the-round staging is deft and atmospheric, and there are some wistful songs sung by Gwendolen Chatfield, in a thoughtful performance as the girl at the centre of the story.  In the end, though, the content of this play seems a little less satisfying than its form, and the story’s ending a shade out of time; even though the detail of the writing is often powerful, and sometimes downright memorable.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p.259.

ENDS ENDS