All that Glisters Is Not Gold – The Merchant of Venice at the Globe

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock

Back from London, where on Sunday I went straight from an intense political discussion with my son in the BFI canteen to a production of “Merchant of Venice” at the Globe. I have blogged about the Merchant before, after seeing the striking but ideologically muddled RSC production of 2011. And indeed, one problem with directing Merchant is that it’s more than simply a Jewish play. There are so many facets to the dysfunctional Venice Shakespeare depicts that it’s a challenging decision for any director to decide which ones to go with. The RSC production ended up highlighting the sexism, its Portia a dumbed-down Barbie doll, and the veniality, transforming Venice into Vegas with an Elvis soundtrack and slot machines.

The Globe has taken a different tack, very much foregrounding the anti-Semitism. Shylock is given dignity by a deeper portrayal of his culture than is generally afforded. Played by the real-life father and daughter team of Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce, this Shylock and Jessica communicate in Hebrew and we see Jessica’s initially modest dress evolve as she slots uneasily into louche Venetian society. In the scene where Antonio sets up the fateful bond, he snatches Shylock’s prayer book from him and throws it to the ground, a gesture rendered even more powerful when Shylock kisses the scriptures upon retrieving them. This is not a Shylock who blends in, and his apparently unreasonable demand for justice becomes a cry for the recognition and validation of his identity.

There are a number of such brutal incidents in this production. When Jessica is transported to Belmont, Portia’s body language and casual flirtation with Lorenzo makes it clear that she will never be fully accepted. We see instances of casual and vicious anti-Semitism, and they are all the more effective for being downplayed, showing a prejudice so integrated into Venetian culture that it deemed entirely unremarkable. Portia herself is marginalised and denied agency, and barely recognises the myriad subtle ways that she inflicts the pain this causes her on more vulnerable outsiders; even the casket scene with the Prince of Morocco, generally played entirely for laughs, acquires an edge here when we contrast her eye-rolling contempt for this Muslim wannabe with her barely-veiled hints to the more favoured Bassanio.

But these undercurrants are, rightly I feel, kept bubbling under the surface. The final scene, described by Shakespeare but realised here, is the forced conversion and baptism of Shylock. It’s almost unbearable to witness. While Jessica keens in the background, knowing that she has sold herself to a world that will never completely accept her, we see a proud and dignified man completely broken by a corrupt society that willingly exploits him even as it despises and condemns his faith.

What I took away from this intelligent rendering of a painful play was that prejudice of any kind corrupts and distorts an entire society, cheapening the relations between men and women, servants and masters, rich and poor alike. Here was a corruption barely noticed, so pervasively toxic it had become. Both Shakespeare’s Venetian plays (the other one being, of course, Othello) focus on outsiders whose qualities are exploited by a social order that despises and abuses them, and it shows that living with such prejudice coarsens the victims as they unconsciously transfer the insults they themselves suffer onto their domestic and social victims.

The best programme notes add subtlety and contemporary resonance to our reading of the play. The Globe programme points out that Venice in the early modern period was already a society in deep decline, defeated by the Ottoman empire, scarred by plague and all but finished as a significant trading power. Yet the Council of Ten continued to strut and swagger, to defy Papal edict, persecute their minorities and reserve a particularly sharp disdain for those outsiders whose talents helped them to negotiate the new world order.

The parallels with contemporary England have real resonance at this point in our national history. One wonders how many of the tourists thronging outside the Globe, drawn to London by our long-standing reputation for decency and democracy, will eventually discover the emptiness of that particular casket as we seek to jettison our commitment to the Declaration of Human Rights and cling to an outdated concept of past glories.

When Enough is Enough – the sad story of Olive Cooke

olivecookeOlive Cooke, aged 92, was one of Britain’s longest-serving poppy sellers. This week her body was recovered from the Avon Gorge – apparently she had committed suicide. There could be several reasons behind this, but close relatives suspect that the intense pressure she felt from several charities to donate to their causes was one of them.

As state provision retreats, charities are increasingly called upon to plug the gaps. Most people will have noticed their increasingly high profile – the mushrooming number of charity shops on our high streets, regular news stories of people running marathons for good causes, television fundraising marathons and, most irritatingly for many, the presence of the dreaded “chuggers” on our high streets. Most of these activities are worthwhile and certainly the human impulse to help out others is a worthy one. But the arrival of professional fundraisers, some of them very well paid, is beginning to blur the line between tin-rattling and harassment.

The elderly are particularly vulnerable to cold-calling tactics. They are often lonely, and come from a generation where good manners and civility were more prized than they are now. It is hard for them to say no. And it is a regrettable fact of life that those who have already opened their hearts and pockets are seen as low-hanging fruit for charities seeking regular donations. My partner and I have supported a number of charities for years, but no matter how deserving the cause may appear to be, there are times when we decide against adding a new one to the list. The reason is both sad and simple – charities are increasingly reluctant to leave you alone after an isolated act of generosity. I can think of one particularly prominent organisation that fulfils a desperate social need shamefully overlooked by the state, I am in complete sympathy with their aims, but I know from personal experiences that their fundraising model is offensive and intrusive. So their nice young workers get no response from me.

I have an elderly relative in his early 90s; he lives alone and is comfortably off. He is the kindest and most easy-going of chaps but the sheer volume of appeals that flood in daily have become a major irritation for him. Many such people have a lifetime of public service behind them and have, frankly, done their bit. They don’t want to be infirm and housebound, helplessly watching endless human crises unfold on their TV screens and feeling powerless to intervene. Some of them are old enough to remember a time when their classmates died in the night because their parents couldn’t afford a doctor, when families were broken up and siblings shipped off to Australia after the death of a parent from TB, even the threat of the workhouse looming over the destitute. Saying no to a charity is not something such people do lightly, but they deserve not to be pestered. Charities may not realise the sheer volume of requests elderly donors receive, and how seriously they are taken. The chucking of an unwanted appeal in the bin is an act of discourtesy that sits uneasily with the lonely elderly, all too aware of their own vulnerability.

The proliferation of charitable endeavours, the increasing competition between them and the growing stridency of their fundraising efforts is not so much a flowering of open-heartedness as the symbol of a dysfunctional social safety net. In theory, their activities are regulated, but digital natives who think in terms of mailing lists and databases need to be more aware of the people behind the names on envelopes, and put robust systems in place to ensure that when someone says they’ve done, and had, enough, their wishes are respected.

Take Us With You, Scotland.

Picture from the Guardian.
Picture from the Guardian.

I must have lost my head. Or should that be “ma heid?” I’ve just signed an utterly preposterous petition – proposing that the North of England secedes to Scotland. Part of me said, “don’t be daft.” And then I reflected that there are a great many ideas that seemed daft when people first came up with them. Scottish Independence, for instance. Not in my lifetime.

The world is changing, very fast. I hardly feel I can keep up with it, and I’m only 56 years old. I have two young adult offspring who are already way ahead of me on political matters, who keep me in touch with reality. I don’t mean the reality that nothing can ever change, that the Tory press will always manage to pour their poison in people’s ears, that this little island of us will diminish on the world stage, not only in influence but in morality. That big business always wins.

I look at these 56 SNP MPs descending on stuffy Westminster like a Blackpool girls hen night, ruffling feathers, eating chips on the terrace, taking selfies, shaking things up. I look at UKIP imploding. I look at that circle of red, London, in a sea of blue, and I wonder if I really do want to retire to the South of England. I also wonder why people aren’t rioting on the streets of London now, and feel that if they have any plans to do so they’d better get out and bloody do it now before the Tories classify any form of protest as terrorism and make it illegal, and terrify the BBC into not mentioning demos until they are over and done with, and only mentioning the policemen that get hurt, and nobody else.

And I see an alternative. I see hope.

Not hope, realistically, that Britain will ever be divided by a line from the Dee to the Humber, and north of it will be a liberal paradise. But hope that it is still possible to want something better, and to think outside the box.

Thank you Scotland, for showing us the way. I am tired, it’s late, and I’m less coherent than I might be, so I will end with the words of my son, written on his Facebook page last Friday. I am so proud of both my kids. They have joined the Labour Party this week. I don’t feel able to follow suit at the moment, first we have to figure out what the Labour Party stands for. But if the SNP ever open a southern branch, I’ll be first in line to sign up.

I’ve seen many calls for the Left to organise today. And they are absolutely correct. But at times like this, just as important as organisation against our foes is solidarity with our friends.
Someone you know is already suffering as a result of Tory policy. Even more will feel the brunt of it soon. In hard times we have a tendency to retreat into ourselves, only expressing a communal spirit in collective anger – but just as important is being there for those close to you. For those with precarious or zero-hours employment, who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those who have had their benefits cut off because the Jobcentre wouldn’t believe that they had a mental illness. For those who can’t afford to live in their own homes anymore because of rent increases and punitive disability taxes. For those who are facing right-wing racism and xenophobia. For those who can no longer afford legal aid or adequate healthcare.
For the next five years, we must address these injustices through both mass organisation and local aid. The Conservatives are fighting tooth and nail to abandon those who it is a state’s duty to support. We mustn’t let them do it. We must resist all that has been done already and all that lies down the line. And we must refuse to abandon or to be abandoned. Remember, many people you know are or will be fighting their own battles – don’t let them fight alone.

Return of the Black Dog


I’m still swamped by those recordings in my brain, “I should do something, I should call someone, I should write a book, I should learn to tap dance.” The ‘I shoulds’ are on constant parade, they never end. Every time I get a blast of one of those ‘I shoulds’ or a memory of screwing up it feels like someone’s sticking a syringe in my heart and squirting something toxic straight into an artery. I try to deflect or accept those painful ‘I shoulds.’ It’s like I’m babysitting myself, trying to sooth a sick child.

Ruby Wax

I’ve known for days that I was sliding back down into depression. I’ve been blaming myself for everything, from my son being allergic to the cat to over-catering the party on Christmas Eve (we’re still guiltily consuming cocktail sausages, and probably will be until someone succumbs to food poisoning, and then I’ll feel guilty about that). Here I sit, caught between the feeling that nobody ought to be depressed at Christmas, surrounded by their loving family and in a comfortable home, and the looming, half-dreaded and half-anticipated New Year exhortations to make meaningful, significant changes. I should not be miserable, I tell myself. I should not feel as if making a simple phone call to thank someone for their Christmas present is a mountain I cannot scale. I should be visiting the health club, cleaning up the leaves out in the garden, doing the ironing – anything to make me feel I am not completely and hopelessly useless.

It is one of life’s sad ironies that I am surrounded by piles of lovely Christmas gifts and feel unable to enjoy any of them. It is not that I lack gratitude. I am just used to others setting the agenda and can’t seem to give myself permission to choose to do something I want and then go ahead and do it. I cannot allow myself the holiday that others are righty enjoying.

We have loads to celebrate and even more to look forward to, but none of it seems at all signifiant right now. Having recently observed the child of an acquaintance commit suicide, I know beyond all doubt that I could never put my family through something so agonising and so public. I know beyond doubt that they love me dearly. What I don’t really understand is why they bother.

And at an intellectual level, I know why I feel like this. I feel like this because I drove myself hard all through the run-up to Christmas, going the extra mile at work, taking on the immense and wonderful challenge of learning a foreign language, recovering from a ghastly tummy bug and trying throughout not to let my fragile fitness regime collapse (in the end it did, and that’s something else I can’t quite forgive myself for). And then came Christmas, and my partner’s retirement, and three parties in the space of a week, and then I cooked and washed up Christmas lunch. I did a good job, and I know the family appreciated it. It’s okay to be exhausted, it really is. It’s okay to miss one or two Italian lessons rather than repeat them over in a parrot-like trance and retain almost nothing of them.

I won’t feel like this forever. I might only feel like this until tomorrow. I feel this way now because it’s the first day for ages I have only had myself to look out for, and I’ve been distracting myself by looking out for everybody else, whether they asked me to or not. My kids have reached the age where I cannot live their lives for them, or even through them. That is something I actually wanted to happen. And I will find new goals, and new challenges, and new dreams, and it is all waiting for me, and the fact that right now all I want to do is crawl under a duvet and sob into a pillow does not negate any of that at all.

And if someone like Ruby Wax can be so beautifully and courageously honest about depression, then there is hope for us all.

In Heaven the tills are ringing

I’ve rather lost track of all the secular milestones that have dotted this year’s run-up to Christmas. Once people celebrated saints days. Now that we all worship at the altar of Mammon these have been replaced by secular equivalents. First came the US import of Black Friday, closely followed by Manic Monday (or whatever it was), and now we have Panic Saturday. Most of my Christmas shopping was done online and well in advance, since I’m a veteran of long queues at the Post Office and the hit and miss approach of Yodel Deliveries.

It’s interesting to speculate how much of this consumer spending is fuelled by credit cards. I’m not about to add to the many arguments against getting into debt. What worries me rather more is that I find it increasingly difficult to rely on my debit card, my preferred method of paying for things in the majority of cases. The reason is not that I keep going overdrawn; I’m very careful about that since the charges are, to say the least, a massive disincentive to misbehave. No, the problem is that NatWest in its wisdom has decided that an increasing number of my transactions appear to be fraudulent, so they take it upon themselves to block my card and don’t even have the good manners to send me a text and let me know.

It’s happened three times this week. What seemed to trigger it was a modest donation to Crisis at Christmas through the Guardian website. At least they let me know that time, albeit several hours later. They also blocked an Ocado order until I told them it was okay, which I promptly did only to log on to the Ocado website a few minutes ago and discover the payment is still outstanding and I’m blacklisted. Admittedly the bill was a bit higher than usual, but not as high as one from a couple of weeks ago that went through with no problem.

Then yesterday I was contacted by the farm shop who are providing our Christmas dinner. Again, my card had been blocked. No warning this time – I simply had to apologise and slap it on my credit card. This is a supplier we have dealt with regularly over the past couple of years, and trust completely. Frankly, they have better things to do at this time of year than phone their regulars for the privilege of getting paid for the stuff they are busily sending out.

I called NatWest, a process that took the best part of an hour since even their Customer Service team didn’t seem to know the difference between a Fraud Prevention Team and a Fraud Damage Limitation Team, and I was put on hold on three different numbers. I was promised – at least in theory – that they had fouled up and next time they would let me know. I was not completely reassured, however. From now on I’ll be carrying around more cash than I am comfortable doing – it seems that NatWest’s concern for my financial safety doesn’t extend to cover the possibility that I could be mugged on the High Street – or falling back on my flexible friend.

I do appreciate that it’s necessary to be vigilant, but what concerns me most about all this is not just the embarrassment and inconvenience involved –  it’s the creeping implication that people who don’t whack everything on plastic as a matter of course are somehow acting suspiciously. Nobody called from the credit card company to ask why I was paying for turkey on the never-never.

All this sounds like a very middle-class problem, prompting charges that I should shut up and be grateful that I’m not among the thousands looking to food banks to put food on the table this Christmas. There is a common thread, however. It’s a more nuanced version of the social exclusion suffered, far more seriously, by people who lack the regular income that makes them attractive to modern banks. It’s part of the problem that leaves poor people paying punitive charges because their benefits were stopped without their knowledge, and forking out £2.50 to take out £10.00 in cash at their local corner shop or pub because they can’t afford the bus fare to a cashpoint. If this is the way that NatWest treats a customer of nearly 30 years standing with an above-average household income, who hasn’t overdrawn by a penny for years, I shudder to think of the contempt they must have for someone with serious financial difficulties.

And I am old-fashioned enough to actually prefer paying for something at the time I actually get it, an attitude that seems to be regarded as somewhere between quaintly retro and downright socially irresponsible. I am being made to feel like a criminal, simply for wanting to spend my own money. By a bank that wouldn’t exist if my taxes hadn’t rescued them six years ago – and now our local services are being shredded by cuts to pay for that.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? Happy Christmas. Even if you work for NatWest.

Food Banks and Libraries – better together?


The recent all-party inquiry into food poverty in Britain is a calm, compassionate and eminently sensible document, and in his forward the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, puts his finger on precisely the reason why so many people in our society are falling into desperate straits. It is more than a matter of falling incomes and rising prices for housing and utilities, though certainly these are a huge factor. It is a problem with the changing structure and values of our social landscape:

We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.

Without wanting to fall in to the trap of talking of a golden age when we all lived in cosy terraced streets with our auntie around the corner and everyone knowing each other’s business, these words are so true. Rampant, uncontrolled capitalism has made us into the iSociety, where people have to navigate a shifting, complicated, ever-changing landscape of temporary casual jobs, short-term privately rented housing and volatile family relationships.

Like most middle-class people, I suspect, I’ve read case studies of poverty and thought sourly, “They can always afford a mobile phone.” One thing I appreciated fully for the first time as I read this report was how difficult it is to navigate modern society, and particularly to search for employment, if you don’t have regular, reliable access to the Internet. Jobseekers are told to apply for a minimum of 15 vacancies a week or lose their benefits. They may have travelled long distances to the Job Centre, paying bus fares they can ill afford, but the tools they need to fulfil these demands aren’t necessarily under the same roof. Internet cafes and local libraries are disappearing – when you do get to one, you may well face lengthy queues for computers, slashed opening hours and a printer that nobody knows how to fix. None of this is trivial when your income depends on it.

The Report recommends that food banks become the centre of a network of social services; this makes a lot of sense to me. Libraries are the ideal local vehicle for delivering this model and, far from closing them down, we should be opening more and giving them more to do. Imagine, for a moment, a library, a Job Centre, a Sure Start centre and a food bank, all under the same roof and open for sensible hours with somewhere safe and warm to leave the kids while you get the help you need. Instead of grumbling that poor people don’t know how to cook, or fill in forms, or speak English properly, open a place where they can access classes in all these things. People who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival don’t have the time and energy to trail across town to parenting workshops or healthy cooking courses, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy such activities or benefit from them if they were provided in a way that speaks to their needs and acknowledges their dignity.

The people who staff food banks already have a proven track record in delivering services that offer people hope, compassion and dignity. We should be building on this, and local libraries are the ideal place to do it. We should be turning the boarded-up retail units in run-down high streets into centres where people in need can get help that starts with food parcels, but moves on quickly to practical, long-term solutions. If you are poor and unemployed, so much of your life is spent trailing around to desperately needed sources of help, possibly with miserable small children in tow, and queuing up when you get there. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. There’s no reason, other than a society-wide lack of vision and compassion, why the local library can’t be expanded to offer everything from welfare rights advice to a community allotment, and somewhere safe to leave your kids while you help out on it and grow healthy food to take home.

The purists may protest, “But libraries are about books!” That’s true, but not entirely correct. Libraries are about knowledge, hope and opportunity. There are many ways to present these things. And certainly a library without books, including ones that entertain and inspire as well as inform and educate, would be a sad place. However, the best way to improve literacy is to get children reading, as widely and as early as possible. Small children are, given half a chance, promiscuous consumers of books, and that’s exactly how it should be, but books do cost money. They need libraries, and they need to be able to associate books with fun, adventure, warmth and safety. Many children live in homes that are cold, dark and miserable, even dangerous. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But at least if there was a place they could go called a library, where Mum stopped crying and occasionally smiled, where you could get something to eat and sit in a corner reading stories with her, those kids are going to start their school life feeling that books have something to offer them. That’s the first step on the road to a future free of poverty and filled by hope and aspiration.

The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

Scottish independence rally on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Picture by BBC)

I don’t like bullies, whether they are having a go at the kid in the playground or whole countries. And that’s why I find myself torn between a head that says “No” and a heart that says “Yes” when it comes to the #indyref

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In theory it’s none of my business. I”m English and I won’t be able to vote. But in fact, whatever the outcome, every person living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up in a different world on Friday morning. We’ve seen all the major party leaders of Westminster wheedling, threatening and emoting like a violent husband sobbing at the front door as his wife gets in the car and puts her foot down. I still love you. I’ll give you anything. You’re just having a little tantrum, darling. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I know that if the Yes vote prevails my first reaction will be euphoria, closely followed by fear and dismay. Euphoria because at last we’ve seen that progressive politics can galvanise a whole country into saying, “There’s got to be another way.” Anyone who’s left a violent, controlling partner will know that sometimes an insecure and frightening future is preferable to a life where your soul and spirit is crushed, where you are continually infantalized. Some of the rhetoric of the anti-independence campaign this week has been deeply offensive. Normally liberal papers who would shrink from making sweeping generalisations about other enthnic or cultural groups have branded Scotland spoilt and bratty, a cosseted baby that needs to grow up. Look at the real problems in the world, they say – migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, IS on a killing rampage.

I don’t buy it. Every bully presents the victim as someone incapable of making mature decisions. It’s part of the psychology of control. You could just as well argue that Scotland has seen the great neoliberal, don’t give a damn for anybody, money is everything, society in action, and said a resounding, “No thanks. There has to be a better way.” It’s outrageous that a resourceful and dignified people who have contributed so much to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in their time, whose capital was the cradle of Enlightenment philosophy and who gave us many of the most important medical and scientific advances that have shaped the modern world, should be dismissed because they’ve become too uppity to toe the line. Nobody is perfect, and there are venial, dishonest and self-seeking characters on both sides, but who the hell are we to lecture them about that? Take the mote out of your own eye first, Westminster.

Devo-max will solve nothing. If money follows rhetoric, which is by no means certain, it will send a message to the other regions of the UK that shout loud enough and you’ll magically get enough money to keep your poor from dying in the streets, let your sick die with dignity and give your young people hope. What’s not to like about that? Can anyone seriously imagine the North East, one of the most deprived regions of England, meekly accepting austerity when they see money being showered on communities just a few miles further north?

So where does that leave us all? Thinking outside the box, whether we like it or not. The old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the major parties squabble over the shrinking middle ground, disillusioned voters will vote for somebody – even UKIP – that offers the hope of fresh thinking. For all our sakes, I pray that the fresh thinking comes from a progressive, socially responsible and outward looking place before it’s too late and the Galloways and Farages have inherited the earth.

The best idea I’ve heard all week comes from Graham Stringer – while the crumbling Palace of Westminster is being renovated, a project that cannot be put off much longer – move the whole rabble of them up here to Manchester. Why does the legislature have to be in London anyway – hundreds of miles away from these Scots that Cameron professes to love so much? Let them come up here, out of their gilded bubble, for a while. See how they like having to do a responsible job after a three-hour daily commute. At least they’ll have the BBC on their doorstep.

You can’t have it both ways. Either we’re all in this together, or we ain’t. If we’re together, then the North of England is as good a place as anywhere to base the corridors of power. And if we aren’t, then away you go, Scotland, and good luck to you.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W B Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)