What Kind of Day Has It Been

What Kind of Day Has It Been

On the 15th November 2015, I joined with hundreds of people in silent vigil outside the ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. We gathered, on that wet evening on the cusp of winter, to remember the destruction of the city and its cathedral in the folly of total war, 75 years earlier. We also gathered with more recent events playing upon our minds; the night before, 129 people had been killed on the streets of Paris.

This time last year, the world was looking like a darker place. 2015 had seen the election of the first conservative majority government since 1997, while the number of refugees fleeing the world’s many conflicts had spiralled.

In spite of all that, as we gathered on the streets of Coventry, I felt hopeful.

Thirteen months later, and yet again I am faced with trying to understand a world where people seek to destroy each other. Last night, fourteen people were killed in Berlin, just outside another church which bears the scars of total war. And I must where that leaves us?

If things looked bleak last November, how much bleaker they look, one year on. The attacks in Paris were but the first of a growing swath of violence which has touched Brussels, Berlin, Nice, Turkey, Egypt… In too many places, the diversity of voices which enrich our societies are being silenced or homogenised. A country founded on the belief that all people are created equal has elected a President based on a campaign of systemic racism. In countries which birthed the enlightenment, populist, nationalist politicians gain ground. The cradle of civilisation continues to tear itself apart, with little regard to the human cost.

I can think of few no major geopolitical events in 2016 which have given me hope. From Brexit and the US election, through to the ongoing horror of the Siege of Aleppo and the murder of Jo Cox, 2016 seems to be filled only with negativity. Talk of a new Cold War seems ever more reasonable. Superpowers seek to expand their control, from the Baltic to the South China Seas. And of course, a great number of amazing people, people who lived lives of intelligent engagement and who offered examples to the rest of us, have died this year.

It would be easy to believe that, like a runaway train, there is little we can do to stem this tide of hatred. Demagoguery, bigotry and selfishness seem to have the upper hand, and it often feels that, for every step forward the world makes, it takes two backwards. In particular, we could consider Brexit and US election, and conclude that there is no longer space in our society for people who are different, that we lost the generosity we once had.

But the truth is not that simple. We have not lost who we are. You see, I am not naive. I know there is good and evil in the world, and in all of us. I know that we hurt each other, even when we don’t want to, and I know that all our progress has given us more ways to do just that.

What has changed is not our nature, but our priorities. Perhaps we have indeed lost sight of our values. But they are not gone for good. They are buried by our own concerns. If Brexit and President-Elect Trump have shown us anything, it is that great swathes of the population feel that the world doesn’t work for them; people who have seen their communities rust, who face unemployment, austerity and insecurity, and who have seen their lives only worsen over years or decades. There is nothing immoral about wanting your community to flourish, about wanting a comfortable life for you and your family. When everyone else seems to have it better than you, resentment is a natural human response.

We, as a world, need to regain sight of perspectives which are bigger than individual self-interest. We need to accept that concern for our own needs should not force out concern for the needs of others. We need to hold on to the fundamental belief that only by constructive discussion can we move forward in the face of disagreement. We need to hold on to the strong institutions and active civil society which are crucial to democratic flourishing, even when we don’t like the specific direction of a given institution.

If you ask me “what kind of year has it been”, I will be honest. It has been painful. It has been heart-rending. It has been one bitter disappointment after another.

2017 need not be the same. If we engage with each other, if we accept that we are social animals, and attempt to live accordingly, we can turn things around. Each and everyone of us faces a choice. We must all chose how we want to live, and we must be constantly making and remaking that choice. There is always scope to turn things around. As a great anthropomorphic personification says, There is always time for another Last Minute.

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Opposition AWOL

Opposition AWOL

Politics in the UK has a problem, which desperately needs to be addressed. In June, a small majority of voters opted to leave the Europe Union. This is the most momentous constitutional change for a generation, and it is vital that we get it right. And that takes discussion. Reaching a deal on our continuing relationship with the European will define this Parliament, and the outcome will effect our country for decades to come. Everyone, therefore, can agree that we must work to get a deal which is good for the UK (and in my book, also the EU). This has been one of the Government’s stock responses when asked for their plan – they will work to get the best deal for Britain. Who could argue with that?

The problem is that this is not an answer. It is simply a platitude. I believe that the government should set out its goals in broad strokes –  where they stand on single market access, free movement of labour etc – and that the triggering of article 50 should be subject to parliamentary approval for these goals. This would give legitimacy to the tortuous negotiation process, and go some way to ensuring that the final deal is one which the country can broadly support. There is one group which should be hammering that message into the Government, yet sadly Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition seems absent without leave. And without opposition, the Government is free to offer the public platitudes, and pursue its agenda behind closed doors.

This is a problem, because we live in a representative democracy, yet much of the population – both geographically and politically – are not represented by the Conservative Government. Even if I felt the Government did represent me, I would want them to be challenged, because rigorous discourse is how we develop and refine policy in everyone’s interests. If ideas are not challenged, then problems go unmissed, ideas are underdeveloped, and failures are inevitable. We all get things wrong sometimes.

No, if we really want to get the best deal for the UK, we must have open discussion about what is good for the UK as a whole and its various regions, about what issues are priorities, and what people want from our new relationship with Europe. The impetus for this must come from those people who are elected to govern on our behalves, making use of the wide range of parliamentary debates, committees and other means. Discussions in parliament could fuel a wider public debate, using the media as a go-between, and we could have a truly national debate. That, at least, would be a positive legacy for 23 June.

Instead, we have an echo chamber. The Government alone speaks, and has what they say repeated back to them by the media, which is offered no alternative perspective. The Official Opposition are nowhere to be seen. This problem has its roots in the referendum campaign, when the Labour Party seemed unable to attract the attention of a media which was more interested in the internecine strife of the Conservative Party. More recently, Labour has struggled to formulate a clear stance on the issue which balances the competing interests of its London constituencies which voted to remain, and its provincial seats which backed leave. But silence is the worst of all possible worlds. It benefits none of their constituents.

Of course, smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, are working hard to fill the gap, offering substantially different policies, to be debated. Yet with only nine MPs, and in a system which is so dominated by the two major parties, they cannot have the same clout. There are no two ways about it. The Labour Party needs to start to take more public positions. I try to be relatively well informed, and honestly struggle to identify what is Labour Party policy at present – particularly as it is still unclear how far what the Leader says is policy. When Mr Corbyn or his senior team do speak, there is no telling if his PLP or wider party agree with him, and would back such a policy.

This problem extends beyond the EU. A whole host of policy areas, from grammar schools to social care, and online privacy to transport infrastructure, can and should be up for debate at the moment. The Labour Party should be fearless in opposing moves which will hurt the poorest and those most in need of support, and it should be particularly unforgiving in attacking such policies if they have been brought in under Mrs May’s leadership, without regard to previous manifesto policy. Yet, time and again, Labour has little to say.

The failure of the Labour Party to speak to the issues of the day is also, in part, a failure of the media. While there are issues on which the party is undecided or divided, on many issues MPs on the front and back benches have plenty to say. Few in the Labour Party would support cuts to social care budgets, for example. Yet they seem unable to attract attention, perhaps because Labour is currently polling poorly, perhaps because, after the leadership challenge which just wouldn’t end, ‘politics as usual’ is dull. Whatever the reason, the Labour Party must reach out to the media. And if it wants to be taken seriously, it must do so with real, substantial policy – that means more than just Mr Corbyn’s ten pledges.

Labour must take control of its message, through a real media strategy. Only when it does that, can we have the real debate which is so vital to shaping the UK’s future, in the face of an unelected Government.

A Monster Calls – stories & hope

A Monster Calls – stories & hope

“Stories are wild creaturesWhen you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

 This evening, I joined some friends at the cinema. We didn’t know what we would see, as we were attending ‘Screen Unseen’, where a secret, pre-release film is aired. So I came without preconceptions, and

A Monster Calls is a strange beast. Based on an idea which could not be developed prior to the creator’s death, Patrick Ness wrote both the book and subsequent screenplay, and in some ways it is what you would expect from Patrick Ness; YA fantasy which deals with a range of personal and cultural themes. Yet even a genre as broad as YA fantasy struggles to contain A Monster Calls which feels like a cross between The Iron Giant and A Christmas Carol. 

The overarching plot concerns standard YA fare of fractured families, bullying and illness. It is solid and well delivered by a cast which largely captures “messily ever after” as the reality of modern life. Particularly strong in that capacity is Toby Kebbell, who plays the estranged father of the lead, and is entirely plausible as a man who muddles through, distracted by other concerns. The younger actors are less compelling – as is so often the case. A bullying sub-plot is under-developed and slightly wooden. Lewis MacDougall, who plays the protagonist Conor O’Malley, does not demonstrate a particularly wide artistic range, but he is nonetheless convincing as a withdrawn adolescent struggling to deal with family collapse (perhaps because such a character does not need to portray much more than anger and sadness). Overall, the primary plot is somewhat obvious and stilted, but will still prove cathartic to the more emotional audience members.

The pacing is occasionally frustrating. The film relies on the telling of stories within the narrative, and also on dream sequences, giving an unhelpfully episodic feel. In contrast, the cinematography and art feel faultless. Sections of the film use beautifully animated water-colour to tell stories, in a style reminiscent of the tale of the three brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Live action sections perhaps over-emphasise pathetic fallacy, but they do so beautifully. In one scene Conor and his grandmother are waiting at a level crossing, while rain drums on car windows. The effect of view of trees outside the car, seen in half-light through a wet window makes the background itself look like watercolour. Other parts of the plot focus heavily on art and illustration; I had not expected to take such pleasure in a film of someone drawing.

What really brings A Monster Calls to life, though, are the fantasy elements, driven by Liam Neeson’s Monster (itself wonderfully rendered, feeling both life like and as though it has been pulled straight from the book’s illustrations). The Monster, a tree-spirit rooted in the landscape, who has the slow mannerisms of Treebeard or the eponymous Iron Giant, seems to grow from the scenery, even when indoors, being somehow a character and scenery at once. And it is the Monster which brings out the rich themes of the film. At one level, the Monster provides an education in loss for the Conor. More important, however, are the inter-woven ideas of hope, and story.

We are told that “belief is half of all healing”, yet the healing expected does not come. What is offered instead, is a healing unlooked-for, a learning to accept the world as it is; to recognise what to hold on to, and what to let go. The Monster does this through stories – stories which show the world, not in black and white, but in shades of grey. His stories are true, and they help explain the complexity of the world to Conor, who is still learning to accept that not every story has a hero and a villain.

Many people I know put great store in the power of stories to explain the world. Stories offer a means to understand the world beyond the story – whether they concern life and death, sexuality, God or just people. When the Monster notes that “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”, he is speaking for Ness, who has staunchly defended public Libraries and Librarians as vital resources to help young people understand the world.

In 2016, these feel like very important themes. In a year where hope seems to vanish, and where we seem constantly astounded by the world in which we live, stories are vital. It is because of our failure to listen to, and understand other people’s stories that we have seen rifts tearing across societies. The Monster notes that “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between” – we must accept this as a starting point if we are to rebuild our world. And yes, I know that listening to the people who voted for Trump, or who chose to target innocent civilians in acts of terror will not, alone fix the problems against which they reacted, but we must begin by listening, and in turn telling our stories. They may weak havoc, but sometimes that is necessary.

I do have another point of contention with Ness. The Monster claims that “You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” This seems to ignore the fact that to put an idea into words is to give it life. Words matter more than this might suggest. Ideas matter. Because hope is an idea, and we must hope. Belief is half of all healing. This feels like a time for healing.