To be or not to be…

This week I was fortunate enough to see the National Theatre Live performance of Hamlet. Filmed live at London’s Barbican Theatre. It gives those of us who cannot afford the trip to see world class productions.

My interest in Shakespeare is relatively recent. For a few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to these plays, mainly through my work in a school, but also through dramatizations on TV. But there is nothing like seeing them on the live stage.

My interest was rekindled several years ago when I saw Macbeth in Manchester. It was a real eye opener for me. For one thing, I felt able to follow the plot and dialogue better than I thought I would. I have been waiting for an opportunity to see another, but the cost has always held me back. But with the NT Live productions I can see these performances without leaving town. And for £10 a ticket, what’s not to like?

I was talking about this to a colleague at work this week. Shakespeare may be our country’s greatest playwright, but the language of his work is difficult and makes him inaccessible to many people. That is why modern adaptations are so important. But seeing these plays performed in the environment they were written for is almost magical.

His stories are timeless and the dialogue riddled with word and phrases that have become a part of our everyday language. I was particularly amazed at the number of phrases I heard during the performance of Hamlet that I knew and used myself without knowing where they came from. And that doesn’t include the two major speeches.

Looking back I am not surprised that it took me so long to see the magic of Shakespeare. My first experience was for my O-Level Literature at high school in the 1970s. We had to read “Julius Caesar”, not one of the most popular of the bard’s works and certainly not the most inspiring as far as I was concerned. The main problem with learning Shakespeare at that time was my teacher. Luckily I was already an avid reader, but even I found myself turned off by a man who had no flair for teaching. I don’t dispute his love of literature, but his lessons were so tedious and uninspiring that I often found myself falling asleep. It took me years to discover that both Shakespeare and Jane Austen were actually quite good writers.

Reading any pre-twentieth century literature has its challenges. The language changes the older thew work, and many of the references need explanation. I remember reading Twelfth Night several years ago. I struggled with language but managed to follow it, in much the same way I had with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But in the end, plays are written to be performed live and following the written word on the page is never as good as a live performance.

I am looking forward to future opportunities during 2016 to catch some more live performances. In the meantime we have a family outing to see another NT Live performance during Christmas week – Jane Eyre.

Praise the Lords

For the past week there has been a lot of talk about a “constitutional crisis” following the House of Lords’ rejection of the government’s proposals for Tax Credit cuts. Although not directly affected by the proposals, I applaud the second chamber for doing what they are there for, holding the elected chamber to account and rejecting or amending ill-conceived legislation.

Most of the time the work of the House of Lords goes unnoticed by the public. They are often viewed as out of touch and unrepresentative. But every now and then the flex their collective muscles and stand up to the government of the day, in this case, forcing them to re-think the affect their draconian policies will have on ordinary working people. Rejecting the cuts in Tax Credits was not only justified but absolutely necessary.

The arrogance of the government on this issue is astounding. Their reaction to the Lords actions borders on the childish. One of the great ironies of the situation is that the Conservatives had an opportunity during its coalition with the LibDems to fully reform the House of Lords, but they rejected the idea. Now they want to rig the house so they get a majority! It is the kind of approach usually only seen in small children or dictators!

Let’s get a couple of things straight right from the start. Firstly, there is no constitutional crisis as there is no constitution, at least, not the kind of coherent and cohesive document you would expect. Instead, we have a series of conventions and Acts of Parliament, any of which can be changed or scrapped without the support of the public at large.

Secondly, our second chamber may be unelected, but they have proved once again that when the need arises they are not afraid to stand up to the more influential elected chamber.

The government claims that they have a mandate from the people. They have, after all, been elected. That may be so, but they do not have the support of the majority of the electorate. The UKs political and electoral system may be one of the oldest in the world, but it is not necessarily one of the best. The system is rigged to give a single party overall control, and if the Conservatives get their way it will be much more difficult for any other party to gain a majority of seats in the future. But that is a subject for another day.

The proposed cuts in Tax Credits is just one of a number of measures aimed directly at those who do not traditionally support the Tories. The government needs to be kept in check and for once the second chamber did the right thing. The Conservatives will no doubt continue to try to bulldoze their proposals through, seeking to pick on what it perceives to be easy targets. But they need to step back and take a good look at what they are doing to the country, to take off their blinkers so they can see whole picture. They also need to learn some compassion.

And until that day arrives, which I don’t think it ever will, we need to Lords to continue to fight for the common man against the outrageous proposals of the commons (an irony indeed!).

World Food Day

Friday (16 October) was World Food Day and it comes as another reminder about the inequality and instability of human society.

Darwin introduced us to the natural process of evolution, where the strong survive and the weak do not. Natural selection is how species develop, grow and evolve; there is no place in nature for those too weak, ill or disabled to survive. That is as true of Homo Sapiens as it is of everything else, but our own evolution has taken us beyond this, at least superficially.

Compassion, a sense of what is right and what is wrong, have taken us down a different path. All the world’s religions tell us the same thing – to care for those in need. So rather than leave the weak to fall by the way side, we are taught to seek out those in our midst who need support and provide for them.

World Food Day is one of those occasions when we are asked to reflect on our own good fortune and do something positive for people we don’t know. A food collection at work brought in a veritable mountain of tinned and packaged goods, all of which will go to a local food bank for distribution to those in our town in greatest need.

For years activities such as this have been focused on Third World needs, but not anymore. It is a sad reflection on today’s society that we are now collecting to help feed and clothe our neighbours. How has it come to this point when citizens of one of the world’s most prosperous nations need to turn to charities just to feed themselves and their families?

It seems that for some the process of natural selection is still very much alive and well! However, now it is not the strong who survive, but the rich. As the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest continues to grow I have to ask, are we making progress, or are we slipping backwards?

On the positive side, while many are struggling with hunger, there are many more who are determined and willing to help. The growing need for Food Banks in a country like the UK may seem like a throwback to another less enlightened era, but it is a reminder that we are, at heart, a caring society. Whilst our “leaders” may not show it, and are only too willing to turn a blind eye to what they are doing to those they seem to feel are not worthy of their compassion, the majority of people do care about others.

We can all do something about world hunger without leaving the comfort of our homes by visiting the website and taking part in their activities. Go on, have a go. It’s fun and will help to feed those in greatest need.

Who are the British?

The week of the Conservative Party conference is always good for a laugh, and this year’s has been one of the best. Or at least it would have been if what they have been saying was remotely funny. Now that they are back in power without the moderating influence of the LibDems we are beginning to see what they are really all about.

In their efforts to bring back supporters who have drifted into parties such as UKIP, they have ramped up the “little Britain”, approach that has always been there, but recently kept under wraps. But as the likes of Ian Duncan Smith, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove pour out their idiotic and damaging ideas to an increasingly right wing audience, Theresa May’s approach to Immigration is not only laughable, it is frightening and divisive.

But even she was outdone by last weekend’s Mail on Sunday article that criticised BBC’s The Great British Bake off for having a Muslim woman in the final. It is not often that a newspaper article gets me angry, but this one did. Not that I read it first-hand! Heaven forbid that I would ever actually read a reactionary rag like the Mail – it was quoted in the “I” earlier this week, and repeated a few times online.

I have always felt proud to be British, to be part of a tolerant and multicultural society. But when I come across the likes of Britain First, UKIP and some elements of the Tory party, I just feel shame and embarrassment.

I remember a debate many years ago when one anti-EU campaigner said to me: “nobody asked us if we wanted a multicultural society.” Well no, they didn’t, but that doesn’t matter because they we born into it anyway. Britain has embraced multiculturalism for generations but often without realising it. Our society is built on a mixture of nationalities and cultures. From the early invaders (Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans) to the more recent migrations from the old Empire and those fleeing persecution (the Huguenots and the Jews), Britain has always offered a safe haven for those in need. Our language and culture reflect this continual influx of ideas and influences. That is the Britain I am proud of. Not the Empire building, jingoistic Britain that some would have us believe we are.

When things are tough, as they are now, it is easy to point to the finger at those in our society who are different or present and easy target and lay the blame for our woes at their feet. But it is not migrants fleeing persecution and war that have caused our economic problems, but greedy bankers and politicians. Our housing shortages cannot be blamed on the “foreigners”, but by the lack of investment and foresight by successive governments, both Labour and Conservative. And the NHS is facing financial melt-down because of a lack of funding and a top down culture, or by the growing costs of dealing with home-grown health problems related to diet and alcohol. It is not being brought to it’s knees by migrants.

We are an island nation, but we are also part of a much wider global community. Britain’s strength stemmed from our willingness to embraced new ideas and absorb other cultures and make them our own. Don’t let the radical ideas of a minority threated that great heritage.

I truly believe that the majority of people in the UK feel as I do, that we must continue to embrace people from other cultures. It is what has made us the nation we are.