29 April, 2012

There but for the grace of God!

My Christmas gift
At Christmas I was given a boxed set of the iconic 1980’s TV series “The Boys From The Blackstuff”. Those who remember this series will remember the effect and feelings that it generated at the time as it railed against Thatcher’s Britain of the early 80’s as unemployment rose and the hearts of towns and cities up and down the country, but especially in the North,  became industrial wastelands. The notes on the DVD box describes the series as “TV’s most articulate response to the Thatcher era” and the “series that defined the depression-scarred 1980s Britain”  These comments are not wrong. The series was probably Alan Bleasdale, the playwright’s, finest hour, and such was the impact of the series that it gave us great characters that even those who never saw the series or who perhaps were not even born in 1982 would still recognise – most famously, Bernard Hill’s magnificent  portrayal of Yozzer Hughes whose immortal “Gizza job......I can do that”  became part of the language. We laughed and cried at Yozzer as he trailed around Liverpool with his three young children in tow begging for work. But, by the end of the series many, including me, had a burning anger inside as Yozzer – a fool and a hard case who always makes the wrong decisions  – is systematically stripped of his job, his pride, his family and ultimately his mind by a hard nosed economic climate and an uncaring state.
Yozzer Hughes

In the past couple of weeks, as the dismal spring weather has brought non-stop rain and wind to the UK, rivers on flood alert and the cancellation of sporting events Pat and I have begun to wade through the DVDs and watch the story again – thirty years after we last saw it. As the rain rattled on our roof, we turned up the volume so that we could hear Bleasdale’s superb writing and hear Yozzer and his friends – Chrissie, Loggo, George and Dixie - dispense their scouse wit and become increasingly desperate as they lose their jobs as tarmac layers and their lives begin to crumble in the face of unemployment. Indeed, these two facets – wit and desperation - come beautifully and pathetically together when poor Yozzer, his wayward wife having left him, his children taken into care and he, without  a job, is left totally stripped of any dignity, pride and money. In desperation he goes into a church and sits in the confessional. The priest, hidden on the other side of the grill, can see that Yozzer looks  a man in crisis, and asks Yozzer why he has come to confession. Yozzer begins to reply “I’m Yozzer Hughes” – the priest, kindly, interrupts and to make the meeting less formal replies “and my name is Dan”  . Yozzer’s never to be forgotten reply?: “I’m desperate, Dan” – for those not familiar with British comic characters, Desperate Dan is  famous children’s comic strip character – and the line became one of the great TV moments. Or, what about when Yozzer meets his look alike – Graham Souness, the then captain of Liverpool’s mighty football team. The two of them, both  “hard men”, meet in a club. It’s all very pathetic and filled with black humour as Yozzer a “nothing”, a man whose wife has had serial affairs and left him to fend for his children, who has had his house re-possessed, lost his job and increasingly his mind  but who desperately just wants to be “somebody” and have pride and a place in the world. He sits  at the side of Souness – a man who has god like status on Merseyside and has everything that Yozzer hasn’t got and will never have.  Yozzer looks deeply into Souness’ eye and says “You look like me..... I could have been a footballer but I had a paper round". It’s social comment, pathos  and tragedy on a grand scale.
Yozzer meets Graham Souness

And Bleasdale’s story still has a resonance today, thirty years after it was made.  As modern Britain again drifts into recession and again a Conservative government, Pontius Pilate like, washes its hands of the responsibility  for the weakest in society it has, like all good literature, a timelessness about it – because it is about things that matter, especially in difficult times. It is about common humanity and facets of human emotions, fears, joys, friendships, failings, aspirations and ambitions. It deals with desperate situations and the most vulnerable in the same way that Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" did - just like George and Lennie in Steinbeck's tale Yozzer and his mates have a dream and only their own friendships to sustain them. And, like George and Lennie, their hopes are doomed as they struggle against cruelty, misunderstanding and poverty. Bleasdale's story is as relevant today as it was in 1982 and as Steinbeck's tale was in its time as it uses universal themes such as  friendship, camaraderie, suffering, aspiration, strength and weakness.  One can enjoy and understand Shakespeare five hundred years after it was written for the same reasons - we can respond to the plots and the emotions of the characters involved: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, Shylock, Lear – because they are portrayed as humans with all our own strengths and weaknesses. We can read Dickens and understand why Sydney Carton behaved as he did or why Magwitch returned to repay Pip for his childhood help after his years of exile in Australia – because they were human. We can understand why Nancy in Oliver Twist, for all her failings and life style as a common prostitute and lover of the frightening Bill Sykes, tries to help the young Oliver – an act which ultimately leads to her own death. So too with Yozzer and Chrissie and the other characters in Bleasdale’s tale as they face the reality of Thatcher’s Britain and are thrown on the scrap heap of life their hopes and fears are things that everyone of us in our small and different ways might have come across in hard times. Like the Jode family in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” who cross America in the Great Depression to seek a better life– Yozzer, Chrissie and the rest  have the same dreams and needs, the same hopes and fears, the same problems to face and to a large degree the same responses to those problems. As Yozzer slips into depression and perhaps madness he comments "when I was young I had dreams......I built sandcastles....sometimes I think that's all I've ever done"  - a social comment that has as much resonance today in 2012 as it did in Thatcher's Britain of thirty years ago as unemployment rises and many of our young people find it difficult to get any sort of foothold on the employment ladder. And  just as in Steinbeck’s great tale, Bleasdale has the power to make men angry and to feel and to understand – and that is what good literature or drama should do.
Chrissie - like Yozzer driven to the
edge of madness

And as we watched, perhaps  the whole thing  looked a little dated – it was after all thirty years old. It  was not, however, out of date. The lines could have been spoken with equal truth and resonance today in austerity Britain - with unemployment rising, benefits being cut,  the social and economic divide widening,  the haves getting richer and the poor getting on with it – this was almost a re-run of history. As I watched it occurred to me that just as in this re-run of the 80s we have today the same situation; the economy is in depression, times are hard, our Chancellor, George Osborne reminds us that “We are all in it together”  - just as Mrs Thatcher reminded us thirty years ago that “there is no alternative”.  Well, and yes we are all in it together – but we are all in it differently. Just as in the series, the rich and even the moderately well off may lose a little interest on their investments, cut back a little on their holidays and leisure spending. The poor and vulnerable, however, lose infinitely more - first their jobs and their livelihoods and then their relationships, their pride their dignity and their aspirations - they all melt away and men become desperate. To say that we are “all in it together!”  is a callous bending of the truth.

But back to the series.  If it was dated, it was only in respect of the TV production illustrating that TV has become more “real”. Despite the series being hard hitting there was no foul language, no gratuitous violence or the unnecessary sexual content that we now accept as the norm. Its hard hitting  effect was in the quality of the words and the acute observation of the characters. We have now watched about half of the series – about three and a half hours altogether – and not heard one swear word, seen one bit of gratuitous violence or explicit sex – and yet the story line, characters and situations give plenty of scope for violence and sex. Has the world and society really changed that much? I think not – but certainly what we consider acceptable viewing has.
Yozzer with his children

Good writing and drama does not need the explicit – indeed it is all the better without it. I am frequently reminded of the survey amongst children many years ago. Children were asked if they preferred to listen to a radio adaption of a children’s story or watch a film version of it. Many children, understandably, preferred the film. One child, however, opted for the radio version. When asked why his reply was classic – “it has better pictures”. He was absolutely right – the imagination is powerful and the radio allowed him to concentrate only on the words which fired his imagination.

Even though we might know little of nineteenth century St Petersburg, for example, we can recognise Raskolnikov, the increasingly demented murderer in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”.  We can relate to him and his motives in our world as he murders the old money lender, Alyona Ivanovna simply because Dostoyevsky draws the character so well  without ever  needing to resort to cheap violence, graphic detail or horror –that, is all in our minds. In Shakespeare you do not need to see the detail and gore of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out in “King Lear” – the words and the imagination and one’s knowledge of life and human emotions fill in the gaps. One does not need to read a vivid and bloody description of Sydney Carton’s execution, his head tumbling into the basket as he is executed in the closing pages of “A Tale of Two Cities” . None of the great  characters in literature and drama need vulgarity and gore to make them more real. We do not need to see the eruption of blood splatter the walls of the tomb as Juliet plunges the dagger into her heart. We do not need hear Bill Sykes scream expletives (as surely a rough, black hearted villain like him  would have done in real life) as he desperately tries to escape the howling crowd chasing  him through Victorian London’s dark streets in the climax to "Oliver Twist". Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is filled with passion of the highest order and made for sexually explicit scenes – but they are not necessary and if they were there would detract from the whole – for they would grab the attention rather that the story and the characters.

I would never suggest that “The Boys From the Blackstuff” and Bleasdale’s writing  is Shakespeare or Dickens or Bronte – but like all good literature the words and ideas are the things not the cheap imagery where weak story lines and poor characterisation are propped up by increasing levels of explicit violence, vulgarity and gore. And sadly this is what fills much of our modern TV screens and offerings from Hollywood – cheap imagery to prop up the banal and poor.
The Boys From The Blackstuff

 So, as the rain beats down on my roof and runs down my office window pane,  on this April Sunday morning I’m looking forward to continuing to watch the next few episodes of Bleasdale’s tale with its great characters,  humour, pathos,  dreams, hopes  and fears. It will, I know, make me increasingly angry – still today after thirty years.  But it will also remind me of my humanity and the humanity of others who are perhaps less fortunate than me. I am one of those lucky ones for whom austerity is just a minor irritation – I enjoy a good pension, have a roof over my head and can anticipate the nice things of life -  a holiday, a car, a meal out and the rest. Unlike Yozzer I have a place in the world which gives me a little pride and dignity. But when I turn my TV on to watch another episode, at the back of my mind will linger the old adage “There but for the grace of God go I”. And that, perhaps, is the real power of all good literature and drama – it makes you think.

11 April, 2012

Shocking? - No, Just Obscenely Insensitive and Revealing

The media in the UK have been commenting much upon the latest utterances from our Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Briefly, Osborne has said he was "shocked" to discover that some of the wealthiest people in the country pay "virtually no" income tax and he had seen "anonymised" tax returns submitted by multimillionaires using aggressive avoidance schemes to dramatically reduce their tax bills. The general feeling across the nation appears to be that at best Osborne was showing huge naivety quite unbecoming  a government minister and especially the Chancellor. At worst, it is suggested, he looks an absolute fool.  For me it is much more than that.

George Osborne is not my favourite character but leaving that to one side I am of the view that the episode highlights  how out of touch many (most?) of our politicians really are. I’m sure that the same might be said of politicians in other countries. Osborne, himself, is a millionaire, as are most of the present UK government. It may well be that he does not play the tax game but if he finds it shocking and surprising to discover that other wealthy people do he is indeed naive and out of touch – and, I believe, much worse.

Those of you who have read my blogs on tax before will know that this is painful subject for me. Without going into too many details, my childhood was littered with often violent and painful rows between my parents – virtually always about money. We were not well off and by the end of the week, despite her best efforts, my mother was often running out of money. My dad was a lorry driver and each week gave my mother his unopened wage packet and she would give him a few shilling back to buy his lunch when he was out in the road. He didn’t ask much from life, didn't drink or go the pub but he did enjoy his cigarettes. I don't remember him ever having a day off work, he never took industrial action and in short, I think, worked hard for his pay. Rows, however, were frequent and unpleasant and always at my mother’s instigation. They always ended by her beating my dad with her fists and he would stand there and be hit. I stood and screamed in the corner or sat on the stairs listening to them arguing long into the night. Although I knew my mother had  a hard time making ends meet I felt bitterly sorry for my dad – and still do today.

When I was eleven I was ready to go to secondary school and had to have  a school uniform. My mother applied for a grant towards this from the local council. I can still remember and feel the pain of the morning that she got a letter back explaining that she was "not eligible" because my dad “earned too much”. She went berserk shouting that dad had been cheating on her all these years, earning more than he told her and threatening to kill him when he returned home after his latest lorry trip. For two days while dad was away on his travels I was terrified knowing that a terrible row would occur when he returned. Even though I was only eleven I could, I believed, see what had happened. The amounts of money quoted in the letter were my dad’s gross earnings – but of course when he handed over his unopened wage packet it was after tax  had been deducted. I desperately tried to explain this to my mother but she was having none of it – and when dad at last walked through the door all hell broke loose. The memories of that night are still very much with me. Even today, when a letter from my tax office drops through my letter box my heart races.   After a lifetime of work when each month my salary was paid into my bank account my wife was the one who always “managed” how we spent and what we spent. And the reason? – the fear of getting into a row about money - and bringing back the pain of sixty years ago. Deep down I never want to return to that terrible night.  I will never argue or dispute about money with members of my family – I am, I know, “a soft touch”.   

Years later, when I went to teacher training college one of my first experiences brought it all back again (see blog “Taxing Times”). Like most students I received a grant which was calculated on parents’ income.  My parents were not well off but they were still required to make a donation and they did. Each Monday morning I would receive from my mother a rolled up copy of the previous Saturday night’s “Football Post” (so that I could read the reposts of how my beloved Preston North End had played!) and hidden inside was a letter of all the family news and two pound notes. I know that the £2.00 mother sent me each week was a significant bit of the family’s cash  and I also knew I was lucky since many of my peers did not have such supportive parents.
In the next room to me was a blunt, plain speaking Yorkshire guy. Terry and I got on well and soon after we started the course we happened to be discussing grants. Terry was mean with money (a Yorkshire man!) but never seemed short of it. He told me that he got a full grant plus other benefits - a clothing grant, an extra payment for books, a travel grant so that he could travel home for free – all things that had been denied me because my parents earned “too much”. At first this meant nothing to me - I felt sorry that Terry was obviously from such a poor background that he got the maximum grant and all these other awards to help him so that his poor parents did not have to contribute. I felt quite well off! But then, after a few weeks, his parents came for a visit and I discovered that I was terribly wrong and very naive . His dad drove a very posh car – a Humber, the equivalent in those days of a top of the range BMW. I looked at this wonderful machine and thought of the "old banger" my dad drove and desperately tried to keep mechanically sound. His mother was obviously very well and expensively dressed - and I thought back to my mother sitting at night after a day working as a weaver in the local cotton mill from 7.00 am to 5.30 pm unpicking old clothes to repair or to re-use the wool from old jumpers and cardigans to knit something new. I learned that Terry's dad owned a chain of gents’ outfitters in West Yorkshire – they were very well off! When I queried his grant Terry was perfectly honest - explaining that his dad had an accountant who made sure, by using every tax loophole, that his dad’s income appeared minimal as far as the grant was concerned and that despite the booming business he rarely paid any tax anyway! Terry was, therefore, the happy recipient of a full grant and every other available benefit - all so far as I could judge obtained pretty dishonestly!

And as I listened to Terry - and now half a century later to George Osborne - I thought back to the frequent violence that there had been at home between my mother and dad about money, I thought of how much it “cost” my parents to send me the £2.00 each week from their meagre income and especially I thought about the basic dishonesty of a system that allows someone to play it and reduce their financial responsibilities by clever accountancy. But most of all I thought about that terrible night when my dad came home and I screamed with absolute terror as my mother tore into him and accused him of cheating and taking the food out his family’s mouth. I thought of my dad as he stood there crying and let my mother beat him and throw things at him – he never responded. He tried to explain about the tax being taken out of his wages but to no avail.

So, when I read of George Osborne’s "shock" when he discovers that wealthy people play the tax system I find the admission quite loathsome and obscene - especially coming from one of the most powerful men in the world and someone who has a direct influence on all our lives. It is also very revealing about how little he knows of everyday life and people. I wonder how many nights the young Osborne cried himself to sleep because of the financial worries of the family. How many times his mother beat his father – all because of a tax deduction – and young George stood in the corner and screamed.  Indeed, it seems to me that Osborne is showing more than just naivety he is showing total insensitivity and lack of understanding of the lives of very many people in the population – and that for a politician is a terrible indictment.

Moving away from Osborne, however,  this lack of understanding and insensitivity to the needs and lives of the ordinary population by politicians is a worrying trend. Most of the present government are millionaires. Well, it is a Conservative government and so that is no big surprise – and I would argue that it has always been largely thus. Indeed, over the past centuries the great politicians of every party were invariably from privileged backgrounds - but in my view there was more of an awareness of the lives of the ordinary and a real desire to improve things. One can see this in some of the comments of the day - for example, the great business man and statesman Joseph Chamberlain who famously said "My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for this great majority;I do not care if it becomes in the process less pleasant for the minority". Sadly, however the balance has tipped and times have changed. This sort of comment is unlikely to be heard today from any of our major parties. None actually sees or comprehends the "great majority." Like the Conservatives, much of the Labour leadership too is increasingly from a privileged background and seems increasingly to be on the "gravy train". One factor in this is, as the Guardian recently commented, the demise of the trade union movement. In the past ordinary men and women got their first taste of politics and representation via their trade unions and they then moved into politics and thence the Labour Party and ultimately Westminster. They were ordinary people who eventually found themselves in government. They brought the ordinary man and his ambitions, needs and life into Westminster corridors - but no longer. Increasingly it is the life and ambitions of the public school educated elite that walks the corridors of power - and the result is that those who are in power can have no empathy with those that put them there. George Osborne is a prime example of this.

I don’t particularly like Osborne nor do I like his politics but at the same time I don’t think he is any worse than many others  - of both the left and the right. He has all the right qualifications for leadership – money, powerful friends, excellent education and the like. What he doesn’t have is compassion and understanding. If he did he would not have made the  unthinking comments he made a couple of days ago. Is he so blind and ignorant of life that he has never realised that people try to maximise their wealth by minimising their tax responsibilities? If he is what is he doing in government? Does he ever lie in bed at night and try to  reconcile two conflicting points of view in relation to tax?  Firstly that tax is the price we pay for a civilised and caring society and secondly that his own party's (and now the Labour Party's) mantra to endlessly repeat "we want to lower tax so that you keep more of your money in your pocket" is really a euphemism to justify mankind's basic greed; "I've got lots and I want more!" If he finds the behaviour of his own kind, the wealthy, “shocking” I wonder what he must think of the behaviour of ordinary folk like me. Does he know about it? Would he approve? Would that, too, shock him? Could he understand and empathise with it? Would he understand that a sixty seven year old ex teacher still gets pangs of dread when tax and money are the subject of discussion or dispute? I think not. And if he (or indeed any other politician of any party) cannot relate to these sorts of questions and feelings what the hell are they doing governing us?