What’s Been On My Mind This Week

Question Mark

1. Over the past few months, many Western democracies appear to be moving to the right. We witnessed the Republicans enjoy dramatic success in the US Midterm Elections last month, UKIP has won it’s first electoral victories this autumn, the far right in Sweden has just caused that country’s government to collapse, and Marine Le Pen appears to be enjoying growing success in France (for more on the latter, see this interesting feature in the New Statesman). Although it looks likely that the Labour party will be victorious in the General Election in this country next May, it’s more a result of feelings of alienation and discontent than through party loyalty. Throughout the West, voters feel ignored, and in response, they are voting less and less. When they do vote, they are now more likely than ever to cast a vote for a minority party (e.g. UKIP or Green in the UK) or a separatist party in Europe. Across Europe, skepticism about the EU continues to grow, as does a deep mistrust and hatred of immigration. But, instead of offering a real alternative in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, it appears that the major European parties of the left have failed to take into account public sentiment on these issues, or to successfully explain why they still support membership of the EU and mass immigration, and what benefits they can bring. The other problem, which we are certainly suffering from in the UK, is that the leaders of the three major parties are all worryingly alike, both in background, policies and appearance. At a time when voter apathy and dissatisfaction is at such a high, people are more likely to vote for a ‘character’: someone who stands out and isn’t afraid to say something different, and who feels less constrained by tradition (e.g. the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won 25% of the vote in Italy’s election last year). But the interesting question is what a vote for any of these populist or extreme parties (like a probable vote for Labour in May 2015) actually means: does it constitute a ringing endorsement of the leader of that party and his/her policies, or is it – and this is perhaps equally worrying – a result of boredom, apathy and anger? Are these half-hearted protest votse born out of continued frustration and the feeling that none of the politicians really cares or understands what is important?

2. There was a fascinating piece on the nature of theatre criticism published in the Guardian this week, which ignited some passionate responses across various blogs. Tim Walker, formerly the Sunday Telegraph‘s theatre critic, wrote that there has been a ‘bloodbath’ among his fraternity (by which he means his fellow critics), that review sections are being shut down and there are constantly empty seats in the stalls on press night. That review sections are being cut is true, and worryingly so, but I regularly attend press nights in my capacity as a theatre reviewer and have yet to see these empty stalls that Mr Walker refers to. Walker clearly has a problem with the new wave of online criticism. Yes, the internet is a competitor to traditional print media, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some brilliant critics who voice their opinions through blogs (e.g. Catherine Love and Andrew Haydon, both of whom have written interesting responses to Walker’s piece which are well worth reading). Most worryingly, perhaps, is Walker’s assertion that the ‘serious newspapers’ (by which he means The Times, the Telegraph and, of course, the Daily Mail) have the ‘perfect relationship’ with theatres, because their client demographics are identical. To me, this says that Walker doesn’t understand theatre, and how it has the power to reach people, to cross class and cultural divides, to bring people together, to make them think, sometimes even make them glad to feel alive. To some this might sound like hyperbole, but if you’ve ever seen a piece of theatre that has had that effect on you, you’ll know what I mean. Furthermore, there are many people out there making all different kinds of theatre and trying to bring the arts and culture to those who might not otherwise be exposed to it (for example the recent, brilliant, Fun Palaces weekend). It sounds to me as though Walker rarely ventures beyond the West End, when it is often fringe and community theatre where the incredibly powerful moments take place. I am not one who likes to see any space for arts and culture cut, but I cannot agree with Walker that the decline in column inches given over to theatre criticism is a disaster; if Walker can’t see the conversation about theatre being continued in any serious form online, he must be blind.

3. In the wake of the furore that erupted when posh hotel Claridge’s asked a woman to refrain from breastfeeding her child in the hotel’s restaurant, a report also circulated about two women who were apparently asked to stop kissing each other at a popular restaurant located on London’s Southbank. Apparently, one of the staff asked the women to stop whatever they were doing on the grounds that they were in a ‘family restaurant’. One of the women concerned said she only gave her partner a ‘peck on the lips’ and was consoling her because she was upset. It’s never okay to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation; would the same member of staff have reacted similarly to a straight couple in that situation? The problem with this issue is that we don’t know exactly what happened: it’s always a case of he said/she said, and we’ll never know which party acted inappropriately. I think most people would rather not be witness to any gratuitous public displays of affection, whether between heterosexual or homosexual couples. What is important is that everyone is treated equally. Would the member of staff concerned have used the same words (‘this is a family restaurant’) if she’d wanted to stop a heterosexual couple from being too amorous in public? Again, I think it’s unlikely. And that is the problem. Whether or not the couple concerned were acting inappropriately, it’s highly likely that they will have been treated differently, and this has to stop.

4. One of the things I’ve been reading this week is a new literary magazine, The Happy Reader, which is published by Penguin Books. Each issue will be composed of two sections: the first is a long-form interview with a passionate reader, and the second is an in-depth but off-beat look at a classic work of literature. You can receive every issue just for the price of postage, and you can find more information here.

5. This week I’ve also been reading Mr Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt’s debut novel. It’s a dark, clever and (oddly) very funny take on Winston Churchill’s depression, which Churchill referred to as ‘the black dog’. Hunt takes the interesting and amusing step of personifying this black dog as ‘Mr Chartwell’, a 6 foot 7 inch beast, resembling a giant labrador, who haunts Churchill in the final days before his retirement.

6. Some of you might remember that I mentioned I’d been listening to the brilliant, gripping radio podcast Serial a few weeks’ ago. The programme has become one of the most successful podcasts ever created, and recently announced it had received enough money in donations to create a second season. Crime drama is one of the most popular genres in popular culture, from television, books and film to radio. Yet, as this feature in the Financial Times points out, Serial is the story of a real-life murder case, and members of the victim’s family are still alive. For them it isn’t a story, or an episode of CSI: for them the loss of their daughter/sister/friend is something they have to cope with every day. This raises interesting questions about the lines between journalism and entertainment, and journalistic responsibility.

7. I’ve mentioned John Grant and The Czars many times before on this blog, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when a new Best Of album was released last week. Unsurprisingly, that’s what I’ve been listening to. There are some really great tracks, particularly ‘Drugs’ and ‘Killjoy’, though I think Grant has really come into his own as a solo artist in recent years, and the music he’s making now is even better. You can find out more about the album on the Bella Union label website here.

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Categories: On My Mind . . .

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