Lost At Sea

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOST AT SEA at Summerhall, Edinburgh, for the Scotsman, 9.4.16.
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3 stars ***

THERE’S BEEN A REAL feast of children’s theatre associated with this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival; and one of this week’s highlights was Catherine Wheels’ Lost At Sea, a vivid short show about our oceans – and about the big currents that surge through them – from one of Scotland’s leading children’s theatre companies.

Written by Morna Pearson, Lost At Sea is inspired by the true story of 7,200 plastic ducks that spilled from a giant container ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992, and, over many years, gradually found their way around the world. On a giant floor map (by designer Karen Tennant) that shows the five huge ocean “gyres” circulating water, weather, and – increasingly – plastic rubbish around the planet, the play tells the matching stories of a girl in Harris, and a boy whose life takes him from Australia to Alaska and Hawaii; both love the sea, and their lives are strangely linked by the story of the ducks, which he experiences directly when he start to find dozens of them on a beach in Alaska.

At just 50 minutes, Lost At Sea seems almost too short to deal with the many issues it raises, from loss and bereavement to marine pollution and the fascinating world of oceanography; the awkward jump-cuts in the story seem a little exposed, the ending too abrupt. But performers Ashley Smith and Laurie Brown make a delightful job of bringing the story to life; and it would be a fine thing if a slightly longer, richer version of Lost At Sea were to have a further life, now that its Science Festival run is over.

Run completed.

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Rapture Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RAPTURE THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.3.16.
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WHEN MICHAEL EMANS was a boy growing up in East Kilbride, in the 1970’s and 80’s, it was the experience of seeing Scotland’s famous touring companies roll up to the Village Theatre, and deliver some memorable “good nights out” to the local audience, that first inspired him to get involved in theatre. “7:84, Wildcat, Borderline – they all used to come,” says Emans. “The shows had such a vibrancy to them, and I just loved the idea of them coming to meet people in their local communities – I think I decided there and then that that was what I wanted to do, to create touring theatre and bring it to people in the places where they live.”

The hallmark of Michael Emans’s career as a director, though, has been something quite different from the radical, cabaret-style activist theatre that 7:84, Wildcat and often Borderline used to pursue, 35 years ago. Instead, as he graduated from the directing course at Rose Bruford College in Kent, and returned to Scotland, he found himself increasingly drawn to a repertoire of substantial classic drama, or tried-and-tested newer plays from Scotland and beyond, presented in a fairly straight-text-based style, with a strong emphasis on ensemble acting.

In 2002, he and his partner, designer Lyn McAndrew, launched Rapture Theatre as a Glasgow-based touring company, working in small-scale venues at first, and presenting classic plays by writers ranging from David Mamet to Gregory Burke, John Byrne and Arthur Miller, who featured in their Miller centenary season of autumn 2015, with productions of All My Sons and The Last Yankee. And it’s the choice of that familiar repertoire, and a relatively conventional theatrical style, that has made Emans a slightly controversial figure in Scottish theatre, particularly when the much-debated Creative Scotland funding round of October 2014 awarded his Rapture Theatre the status of “regularly funded organisation” – although at the very modest level of £125,000 a year – while rejecting applications from more artistically acclaimed and innovative companies such as Stewart Laing’s Untitled Projects.

Yet despite the odd brickbat – and a critical response that is often lukewarm – Rapture Theatre seems to go from strength to strength, battle-hardened by the 13 years of project funding they endured before becoming a regularly funded organisation, and tightly focussed, as always, on building an ever-stronger relationship with the paying theatre public across Scotland, as well as with future audiences, through an extensive programme of schools workshops. This week, they announced that their autumn production will be the Scottish premiere of Michael Frayn’s award-winning 2003 play Democracy, about the relationship between 1970’s West German chancellor Willy Brandt, and his secretary and friend Gunther Guillaume, whose exposure as a communist spy led to Brandt’s resignation; with a cast of 10, the play will rival last autumn’s production of All My Sons in scale, and will tour to 23 venues across Scotland, ranging in size from the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, to the Eastgate Arts Centre in Peebles.

“I think the secret of Rapture’s success is that they offer something our audiences are enthusiastic to buy,” says Julie Ellen, artistic director of the MacRobert Theatre in Stirling, who is asssociate producer of Democracy, as well as hosting its opening performances at the MacRobert in September. “It’s a solid repertoire of proven plays, delivered to a standard that easily matches most of the mid-scale classical work we can bring in from south of the Border; and there is a huge appetite for that.

“After all, our main rep companies in Scotland – the Citizens’, the Lyceum, Dundee – don’t tour, or only tour very rarely. So a touring company providing a programme of strong modern classics, made in Scotland, is clearly filling a gap. Rapture has been really well received here at the MacRobert, and we’re just delighted that they’re coming to us again, with a play that has such modern relevance.”

As for Michael Emans, he remains his genial and diligent self, at the eye of any storms that blow up; the company even survived a real show-must-go-on disaster, last September, when the lead actor in All My Sons had to be replaced just three days before opening night, and the lead actress fainted spectacularly during one of her biggest scenes, taking 10 minutes to recover.

“Well, we had terrific support from the Theatre Royal over that,” says Emans, “and in general, we’re really delighted with the company’s progress at the moment. The feedback on the Arthur Miller season was tremendously positive, from all kinds of audiences – more than 50 school parties saw All My Sons in the five venues it visited, for example. And we’re really excited to be staging the Scottish premiere of Democracy, which is such a timely play – about Europe, about what we mean by democracy, and about the pressures on politicians who are fallible human beings.”

And is Emans worried at all by his company’s self-imposed distance from the creative centre of a Scottish theatre scene often driven by the energy of current writers, and the the pursuit of ever-newer kinds of new work? “Not really,” he says. “We’re increasingly confident of our relationship with our audience across the country, and I can honestly say that the most negative response we’ve had, in recent years, was when some peple were taken aback by the language in Catherine Johnson’s Bay City Rollers show Shang-A-Lang.

“It’s true that Scottish theatre is often all about new work, and we are not about that, although we hope to bring plays that are often new to Scottish audiences. But on the day the regular funding decision was announced – well, I just remember the great atmosphere in the Briggait in Glasgow, where we have our office, alongside Conflux the circus skills company, and Mischief La Bas which specialises in outdoor performance, and the Barrowland Ballet. We all received regular funding on that day, and there we all were celebrating – four companies that could hardly be more different in approach and style, but all making their own contribution to the scene; and, of course, giving each other a lot of support along the way.”

Democracy on tour across Scotland, 2 September-12 October 2016.

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Billy (The Days Of Howling)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BILLY (THE DAYS OF HOWLING) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.3.16. ______________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IT’S NOT the most theatrical show you’ll see this year: presented straight to the audience, by three actors who barely interact throughout, it comes across more as an intense trio for radio, than as a theatre piece.

Yet for all that, it’s hard to a imagine a more timely play – in the age of the rise of Donald Trump – than Fabien Cloutier’s fierce Canadian study of ordinary middle-class rage and loathing in our time. The three characters are Alice’s Mum, an intent, uptight middle-class working mother driving her daughter to nursery, Billy’s Dad, a working-class bloke who pauses to eat donuts on his way to the school, and Admin Lady, a school bureaucrat who cannot get anyone to install a new pin-board in her office.

And while Billy’s Dad is a relatively genial soul, both Alice’s Mum and Admin Lady are possessed by rage, partly against everyone different from themselves (cyclists, ethnic minorities), but particularly against fat people, whom they suspect of stuffing their faces to the point of disability, then sponging off the welfare system.

Needless to say, the cruel assumptions both women make turn out to be false; and Alice’s Mum pays a tragic price for her final uncontrolled outburst of fury. What matters about this play, though, is its fearless exploration of the rise of toxic hatred among what looks like a fairly comfortable and privileged western population. Bureaucracy, alienation – something is driving these people mad. And we need plays like Fabien Cloutier’s to help us explore that truth, before it is finally too late.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

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Tom, A Story Of Tom Jones – The Musical

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TOM, A STORY OF TOM JONES – THE MUSICAL at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 19.3.16
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3 stars ***

IT WAS THE AGE of The Beatles, of mop-top groups and new-born guitar pop, when London agents and bookers just weren’t interested unless you came from Merseyside, home of the beat. Yet somehow, during those same Sixties years, a singer emerged who seemed like a throwback to the 1950’s, a big balladeer who looked like an adult rather than a teenager, who moved like Elvis, and who sang everything from Ray Charles to Irving Berlin classics.

His name was Tom Jones, born Tommy Woodward in Pontypridd in 1940; and he proved to have such a voice, and such showbiz staying-power, that if you search the internet today for Theatre na nOg of Neath’s touring tribute musical about Tom’s early days – written by Mike James, directed by Geinor Styles, and first seen in Wales in 2014 – you’ll find just as many references to the big man’s current tour of Australia and New Zealand.

In a series of scenes so tightly focussed on those early years that they become slightly repetitive, the show therefore begins with a classic mining valley vista of tiny terraced houses, before leading us – via asides to the audience and lightly caricatured short scenes – through Tom’s youth as a Saturday-night pub singer, and his successful local career with a band called The Senators, to swinging London, and the year of grinding failure the band endured there before Tom,and Tom alone, finally reached the Number One slot with It’s Not Unusual, in March 1965.

And give or take a rousing final medley of Tom’s greatest hits, that’s it, for this show; Kit Orton, in the leading role, makes a fine job of capturing Tom’s voice and presence, Elin Phillips gives a star turn as his ever-supportive teenage bride Linda, and the four actor-musicians who make up The Senators play brilliantly, particularly in the rock-and-roll sequences of the first half.

And although this show inevitably attracts an audience who were there when all this happened, 50 years ago, it’s fundamentally a story about youth, in a time when being young was far tougher and more thrilling than it is now; a time when it took oceans of self-belief for a working-class kid to break through into any kind of media at all, but when the rewards of fame, when it finally arrived, were more far-reaching and spectacular than anyone can easily imagine, in these days of diffuse online communities pursuing their own musical enthusiasms, and rarely – if ever – coming together at all.

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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Shrapnel

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SHRAPNEL at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 14.3.16.
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4 stars  ****

WHERE ARE WE, in the early scenes of Catrona Lexy Campbell’s bold new stage version of the 2006 novel Shrapnel, by her father Tormod Caimbeul? There’s a hospital, there are nurses, there are people speaking Gaelic, with projected surtitles flitting across the set. And there seems to be a bar, or perhaps an Italian restaurant, where an ugly Friday-night fight has taken place, resulting in the serious injury of a notorious retired police officer known as Shrapnel, and a strong police interest in our young hero, a Lewis man called McLugrin.

In fact, as we gradually work out, we are in Leith; and it’s arguable that given the linguistic and visual complexity of what Catriona Lexy Campbell and director Muireann Kelly are trying to achieve in this new show from Theatr Gu Leor – with a cast of six, and a strong creative team in sound, design and music – it might be worth making that starting-point a little clearer, before we plunge into McLurgan’s Dante-esque journey through the underbelly of late-20th urban Scotland, and out into the landscape of his chlldhood.

If Campbell’s adaptation is sometimes slightly hard to follow, though, what it achieves without question is to make a thrilling case for Tormod Caimbeul’s novel, as an astonishingly bold and surreal narrative poem, almost like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in its ambition, about a Gaelic soul half-lost in urban Scotland, but still deeply aware not only of his heritage, but of how it connects with so many deeper strands in human culture, from the Greeks and Shakespeare to Buddhist mysticism. There’s a chilling performance from Iain Macrae as Shrapnel, a mighty bullying monster of macho violence and bigotry; and a superb one from young Gaelic actor Iain Beggs, who carries the complexity and truth of Caimbeul’s story on his broad shoulders, to its strangely peaceful and moving end.

At the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, this week (15-16 March), and on tour across northern Scotland, Barra and Lewis until 2 April.

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Mystic McMillan 2016!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: MYSTIC MCMILLAN ON THEATRE IN SCOTLAND 2016 for Scotsman Magazine 26.12.15.
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JANUARY

The year begins in a mood of confusion, with theatre companies still scratching their heads over the Scottish governent’s enigmatic budget, which appeared to slash cultural funding by 9.4% – the biggest cut of any area of government spending – but was followed by briefings to the effect that no-one was actually being cut by much more than 3%.

Rumours circulate that for reasons unknown, the government wishes to appear to be tough on arts funding, while in fact not being all that tough; and they begin to spread like wildfire after the opening night at the Lyceum of Conor McPherson’s pensive modern ghost tale The Weir, when a man in a heavy winter coat, bearing a strange resemblance to finance minister John Swinney, is seen at the stage door handing wads of grubby fivers to the cash-strapped theatre’s executive director, while muttering “Don’t tell them I gave you this.”

FEBRUARY

In the first week of February, Rona Munro’s huge trilogy of James Plays returns to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, at the start of a global tour . At the after-show party, NTS boss Laurie Sansom and artistic director designate of the Lyceum, David Greig, call for the Scottish theatre community to be inventive about generating new income, in the wake of the govermment cuts, and to remember that government can also provide the arts with help in kind; a senior civil servant in the crowd is inspired to announce that in future, all such Scottish theatre gatherings will be provided with a supply of government-issue sausage rolls, freshly delivered from Victoria Quay.

MARCH

In March, the Citizens’ Theatre presents a new version of Get Carter by Northern Stage, and puts out an innovative call for funding from those in the city who know exactly how it feels to be a local gangster returning to former haunts; the response is muted. At the end of the month, the entire Scottish theatre community boards a fleet of buses to Cardross, west of Dumbarton, where Angus Farquhar’s NVA organisation is staging an event called Hinterland, as part of its restoration project at the old St. Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, an outstanding neglected masterpiece of Scottish modernist architecture. Asked how he finally managed to raise the money for this long-cherished project, Farquhar replies that it was simple: he just stopped using the word “theatre”, and the cash started to pour in.

APRIL

In April, Edinburgh theatre is almost all about nostalgia and escapism, as screaming crowds of middle-aged women besiege the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh for performances of Jackie The Musical – about the famous girls’ magazine of the 1960’s and 70’s – and queues form at the Festival Theatre for the spectacular stage version of Mary Poppins. Meanwhile legendary director Michael Boyd – former boss of the Tron and the Royal Shakespeare Company – returns to the Traverse with his production of eerie Quebec ghost story Right Now. Asked how Scottish theatre can generate more income, Boyd suggests that companies try doing some Shakespeare, since 2016 is the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death; but apart from a one-day celebration at the Citizens’ on 23 April, no Shakespeare productions are forthcoming.

MAY

On 5 May – Holyrood election day – David Greig holds his last Two Minute Manifesto session at the Traverse before taking over as boss of the Lyceum, and the SNP wins another impressive overall majority in the Scottish Parliament; the John-Swinney-like figure immediately appears at the Citizens’ Theatre with an entire suitcase of Royal Bank of Scotland notes, which he says is an anonymous contribution to the theatre’s current building project. Meanwhile, Liz Lochhead’s new play Thon Man Moliere, about the life of the great 17th century French playwright, opens at the Lyceum. In a pre-show talk, an audience member suggests that since Moliere’s main source of funding was Philippe Duke Of Orleans, the brother of Louis XIV, a bit of royal patronage for Scottish theatre might not come amiss; but despite attempts to follow up this inspired suggestion, the palace remains silent.

JUNE

In June, the National Theatre of Scotland tours revivals of two briliantly successful recent shows, Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour – about a group of riotous Oban schoolgirls travelling to Edinburgh for a choir competition – and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, David Greig’s post-modern Border ballad, best performed in a pub. In an effort to provide Scottish theatre with help in kind, the Scottish government offers to buy a pub where the NTS can stage Prudencia Hart in perpetuity, like Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap; NTS boss Laurie Sansom politely declines.

JULY

In July, as is traditional, nothing happens in Scottish theatre at all; apart, of course, from the Pitlochry summer season, which does not rely much on public subsidy. Asked what Scottish theatre should do to enhance its income, artistic director John Durnin says, ”Get yourself a gorgeous Highland location and a big restaurant, and you’ll find your problems melt away like snow off Ben Vrackie.”

AUGUST

The Edinburgh Festival takes place amid cries of astonishment, as culture secretary Fiona Hyslop leaves politics to become the new Chief Exedutive of the Edinburgh Fringe. “Well, I’ve leanred a lot about it over the years,” says Ms Hyslop, “and I thought it looked like more fun than being in goverment.” Meanwhile, the Scottish Government buys up the Royal High School in Edinburgh – still the subject of bitter disputes about its future – and offers it to Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan as help in kind, and a perfect future location for his spectacular start-of-festival outdoor events; to everyone’s amazement, Linehan accepts.

SEPTEMBER

The National Theatre of Scotland moves to its new shed-like home at Rockvilla in Port Dundas, billed to become a base for all NTS backroom activities and educational projects. Within weeks, though, NTS boss Laurie Sansom shocks the Scottish government, Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Licensing Board by announcing that following the sad demise of the Arches in May 2015, he has decided to launch Rockvilla as a late-night club and music venue, and to use the commercial proceeds to support the NTS’s work with young artists. Crowds flock to the Rockvilla club nights, and for the time being the GLB fails to think of a reason not to give it a licence.

OCTOBER

Excitement is intense, as the acclaimed new touring version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – produced by former Festival Theatre boss John Stalker, and directed by former Dundee Rep artistic director James Brining – arrives at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. A Scottish government representative turns up with a bag of Clydesdale Bank tenners, but is politely turned away; this is one show, he’s told, that can wash its own face, and fly its own magic car out over the audience, too.

NOVEMBER

Wind, rain, panto rehearsals. Nothing happens.

DECEMBER

A mood of festive cheer sweeps over Scotland’s theatres, as the Scottish government offers in-kind support to Jack And the Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh in the shape of a giant beanstalk specially cultivated at the Royal Botanic Gardens’ outpost in Galloway; sadly, it collapses under the combined weight of panto stars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, and is never seen again. “It was an unfortunate incident,” says diplomatic Duncan Hendry, boss of the Festival and King’s Theatres, “but we still very much appreciate any support the Scottish government can give us. And of course, like everyone else in Scottish theatre, we’re still searching for the magic beans that will bring us fame and fortune, in 2017.”

All shows featured in this column will take place at the places and times mentioned, as will the NTS’s move to its new headquarters. Everything else, of course, is pure fiction!

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At Christmas Time, Let’s Remember That All The Major Problems We Face Need International Solutions; And That A Purely National Politics Has Become The Refuge Of Those Who Would Deliberately Obscure Reality – Column 24.12.15.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.12.15
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TWO LEADING London newspapers are spread across my desk, on the day before Christmas Eve. One one front page, there’s an image of a British soldier sheltering his face from a dust-storm in Helmand province; it accompanies the news that a year after our final departure from Afghanistan, British boots are back on the ground near Sangin, the Afghan town now once again in danger of falling to the Taliban.

And the other newspaper carries an image – the image of the year, many might say – of another boatload of refugees making landfall on the Greek island of Lesbos. They are blonde, dark, mostly youngish men, with a few young women and chldren; and soon, they will be making their way north and west, to Germany, Sweden, Britain. Some of these refugees – or their cousins from camps on the Syrian border – may eventually make their homes here in Scotland, or will join the steady flow into the south-east of England, changing UK domestic politics for both good and ill.

For this has been the year when – to paraphrase Trotsky – you may not have been interested in world affairs, but world affairs began to seem ever more interested in you. Even when we were not watching images of war in Afghanistan or Syria, or of refugees risking their lives to reach Europe, it was a year when we felt our global connections and responsibilities tug at us every more keenly and painfully, from the twin Paris tragedies of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the 13 November attacks, to the great climate-change conference, also in Paris, that ended the year; ask a shop-owner in Cumbria, flooded out for the third time in a month, whether he or she has any interest in the climate talks, and you may get a very different answer from what you might have expected a decade ago.

Yet if the sheer scale of these crises is beginning to change our news agenda, it often still seems barely to impinge on our politics. Last month, when Britain made its decision to join in anti-IS bombing raids in Syria, Britain’s political class discussed the matter almost entirely in terms of what the debate revealed about the depth of the current split in the Labour Party.

And although our leading politicians now spend a huge proportion of their time in international meetings, negotiating joint responses to these various crises, it stiil seems that for many – both politicians and voters – the first reaction to any global trouble is to suggest that we can sling up a political and psychological drawbridge, “bring power back home”, “get control of our borders”, and keep a troubled world at arms’ length. Anti-immigrant parties do well in elections across Europe – although not so well as some eagerly predict; some countries in south-eastern Europe, notably Hungary, have even shamed themselves by rebuilding the kinds of physical walls and fences from which our continent, after 1989, was supposed to be free at last. And even in Scotland, despite a widespread understanding that any form of nationalism is best combined with a robust internationalism, we still tend to look inward in our daily politics; as if the austerity budget just delivered by John Swinney was some mere domestic problem that could be solved by independence, or by a more robust use of devolved powers, rather than a symptom of a Europe-wide malaise.

It looks, in other words, as if patriotism – long recognised as the last refuge of a scoundrel – has now become something worse: the deliberately deceptive politics of those who wish to obscure the reality of the world we live in, and to offer the false prospect of a nation somehow protected from global change. Almost all mainstream parties, in all nations, are guilty of peddling this illusion to some extent. And because they are made up of representatives from these same parties and governments, our international institutions – the bodies which should be powerful enough to take on and solve the global problems we face – are both weaker than they should be, and perilously short of the kind of scrutiny that might be provided by a genuine international grassroots politics, with media to match.

None of these ideas are new, of course; my father and many of his generation returned from the Second World War convinced that “world government” was the only real answer to the huge issues of justice and freedom they had glimpsed in that global conflict. And although there have been so many bitter and catastrophic failures since then, it’s perhaps worth remembering two things, at Christmas, about the global institutions – still relatively new, in the long view of history – that were founded in the aftermath of that war, including the United Nations.

The first is that for all their flaws, these institutions do also have their successes; it’s simply that when when they succeed, we hear nothing of the absence of war and catastrophe that is their greatest achievement. And although agreements like the COP21 climate deal reached in Paris are deeply flawed, they represent a level of international recognition of a shared problem, and an intention to deal with it, that surely signals progress, however dangerously slow.

And the second is that a global politics will only really emerge when there are millions upon millions of global citizens actively demanding it, and increasingly rejecting the brittle and strident old lies about national power and self-sufficiency that still so distort our politics. The truth is that there is not a single problem mentioned in this column that can be solved entirely at national level. If they are solved at all, it wil be by vigorous coalitions of the local and the global, supported by regional and national governments that use their powers well, to put themselves on the right side of history. And as we look, this Christmas, into the faces of those arriving refugees who could – but for the grace of God – be ourselves, or our loved ones, we should know this: that human kind is a family, however vast and fractious; and that sooner or later, we must sit together around the same table to solve our problems, lighting our traditional candles of meeting, celebration and talk, against all the forces of the dark.

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