Tag Archives: politics

Meet the Neighbours (it’s an order)

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Some of the neighbours enjoying our Big Lunch last summer

 

From the time I Ieft home at 18, it took me nearly ten years before I really got to know any of my neighbours.  It’s just not how I lived.  I moved around different flats, living with different people, I travelled to meet friends, and it never occurred to me to make an effort to meet the other people in my building or street.

I went through some kind of epiphany or conversion around the age of 27, and decided to start making an effort,  But it was just that – an effort.  It wasn’t something that happened very easily or naturally.  I didn’t seem to have a lot in common with these random people.  The only communal spaces in our building were the narrow, outdoor balconies along which our front doors were strung.  In the summer it was nice to stand outside and gaze at the view, but it was weird to hang out there in the British winter.

Over time I’ve come to believe more and more in the value of knowing our neighbours.  It makes home feel more like somewhere we belong and want to return to, it makes it feel safer and happier.  But there are other advantages too, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been watching the progress of the Social Integration Commission over this past year.

You might have missed the fact of its existence, so allow me to catch you up.  It was set up in the spring of 2014 by an organisation called The Challenge as a way of investigating the state of social integration in modern Britain, the economic costs of a lack of social integration, and to make a set of recommendations which could improve the situation.

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There have been some fascinating discoveries.  In the UK our children are actually less socially ingregated than older people, which doesn’t say much for how socially mixed our schools are.  (Needless to say the new faith schools popping up through the Free Schools initiative aren’t helping the statistics).   Despite being much more diverse (in terms of ethnicity and class) than the rest of the country, our biggest cities are less socially integregated – perhaps because it’s easier for large homogenous groups to stick together.  Churches and other faith communities are often the best social melting pots and one of the few places where people from different backgrounds interact.  And white Brits are the least socially integrated group in the country.

Fascinating.  But what do you do with that information?

One of the main reasons that we live where we do is because we put a high value on living alongside and getting to know people who are different from us.  (We also feel acutely aware of the dangers of segregation and growing resentment between the different ends of the income spectrum, especially when it’s usually the people in the middle who leave the inner-city).  On our estate there are individuals and families from all over the world – Ecuadorians and West Indians, Sierra Leonians and Nigerians, Poles and Spaniards, Indians and Thais.  There are people of very different ages, different religions and different income brackets – the private owners and the social tenants live side by side.  We’re still struggling to work out how to be good neighbours and build the sense of community people seem to crave but we’re still working out how.  All I can come back to is that it takes effort.

But then there are moments – big ones like The Big Lunch, and small ones like running out of milk for Jesse and knowing that Agnieska will bail me out – when it feels incredibly worthwhile.  I love how many people in the block know and treasure our little man.

We are on such a learning curve, which is why I was so eager to read the Commission’s recommendations for improving social integration.  There are some obvious (and important) ones relating to schools and work-places, but what were their neighbourhood-related suggestions?  One easy answer is banning ‘poor doors’ (the practice of creating different entrances for private and social residents within the same development), which I hope is a no-brainer.  But they also recommend that planning authorities stipulate that new developments must incorporate plans that will enable different residents to mix (rather than trying to curtail this).  Bring back shared spaces!

There is also a laudable but unhelpfully vague recommendation that “people living in diverse areas should be encouraged to meet their neighbours.”  Yes!  (From the rooftops). Totally!  But who will do this encouraging? (Apart from me, obvs).  There are schemes afoot to help – Play Streets, Streetbank, The Big Lunch.  But it’s not exactly something you can legislate.  You can’t make people come to a jumble sale (ahem).  It takes time to win trust, and how many of us are willing to spare it?

(A side note: I think meeting the neighbours is a good thing to do whether or not you live in a socially diverse area).

I’ve enjoyed all three of the reports by the Commission (although maybe the economic one was the least exciting), and I’ve discovered that there are all kinds of practical proven reasons why making an effort to build friendships with people who are different to us contributes to our common good as a nation. As a city dweller it’s sobering to read how bad we are at it, despite all the opportunities we have.   I’m not sure it has changed much of my thinking.  I guess the point of it is to try to influence public policy to create a greater likelihood of social integration across the country, and that is definitely an initiative I’d support.  And it fuels our resolution to live where we do and be persistently sociable.

I’d really recommend reading the reports (they’re eminently readable), and would also love to hear any ideas for how to encourage the world to meet their neighbours!

 

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Rev

It is with no little excitement than I am embarking upon my first blog in several months which is NOT ABOUT BABIES.

I’ll be honest that I wasn’t sure I’d ever have enough to say about anything else again, or certainly not this year, but lo and behold a topic has occurred to me.  It might only be a momentary diversion, but I’m still excited.

This last week I posted an article on my facebook page from The Guardian, written by an acquaintance of mine, about the TV series Rev.  And it elicited a number of passionate and defensive responses, quite unexpectedly.

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I don’t watch much TV and I think I only saw one episode of the show before this year, but endless baby-feeding sessions in the middle of the night have given me a new appreciation of iPlayer, and increased my exposure to what’s on the box.  And I have now watched the whole of Rev series 3.

I’m going to tell you why it left me frustrated, but let me be clear that I enjoyed it a lot.  For all that follows, I’m not trying to shoot the “Rev’ team down.  I’m not trying to say that “outsiders” can’t create comedy about church.  I’m not saying the show is devoid of truth – far from it.  I think it’s a brilliant show.  I have always been a huge fan of Tom Hollander.  I’d even echo the words of Euan Ferguson in The Observer, that Rev is “never twee, [and] always in surgeon-skilled hands”.  But because it sets out to depict a life of Christian service in the context of inner-city London, it inevitably rubs up against my own experiences of trying to, well, do something similar.  Sure, I’m not a vicar, and I’m not even really an Anglican anymore, but I’m part of the leadership team of a church; there is a lot in the show that is painfully familiar, but also a lot that is fairly alien.

The Guardian article I posted critiques Rev for offering an outsider’s perspective on the church, whilst claiming to be an insider’s.  Yes, the show is hilarious.  Yes, it’s brilliantly written. Yes, it’s skilfully performed.  Yes, it’s warm and moving and intelligent. The writer affirms all of this.  But for all its compassion and sympathy for the Reverend Adam Smallbone, his story is presented as sweet and ultimately ineffectual.  Any loyalty he elicits and friendship he wins is basically down to him being a pretty nice, normal guy, rather than because of his abilities as a leader, or even a man of God.  The church is a kind of anomalous hangover of a bygone era, a social gathering with its own peculiar rituals, but which seems to have little real impact on people’s lives.

I’m not saying church is never like that, but it’s a long way from my experience – or from that of the writer of the offending article.  We haven’t been lured in to hyper-trendy pop-culture-church by sofas and free coffee.  But neither are we trying to cling to a crumbling and declining institution out of loyalty or tradition or niceness, or a purely private, custom-made set of beliefs.

I belong to a church because of a person, because of a genuine and ongoing encounter with a God who, in the words of C S Lewis, is not safe, or tame, but good.  For me the strangest absence in Rev, is God himself.  Yes, I know Liam Neeson tried to put that to rights in the beautiful last episode of the series, but, bizarre cameos aside, he is largely absent.  People talk to him, but there is very little sense that he has any kind of purpose, agenda or opinion on anything.

My experience of the church (which for many years was Anglican, and in London) is chequered, but when I reflect on its strongest characteristics I come back to the extraordinary truth that in whichever congregation I have worshipped – and I am thinking not just of inner-city London but of churches in African villages, Thai slums, South American favelas, Australian suburbs – I have encountered crowds of people with stories about encountering God.  And I have heard countless talk of the different ways in which these different believers were committing themselves to pursuing God’s agenda of love and service and hope and change in a very broken world.  Not everyone’s story involves healing and voices and crazy supernatural things (although plenty do); there are other quieter stories of peace and grace and restoration.  But there is always someone alive at the centre of it all – a beating heart – setting the agenda.

Am I frustrated that Rev is bad PR for the church?  The positive reception the show has had in the media would suggest that the opposite is true.  In Rev the church is not portrayed as oppressive, repressive and anachronistic…..it’s benign and well-meaning and anachronistic.  It is still irrelevant, just not so dogmatic or legalistic.

Giles Fraser wrote an interesting article about the show for the Radio Times, picking up on a similar observation.  He wishes that Adam had a bit more backbone when it comes to some of the big issues in his parish – be it gay marriage, poverty, or female clergy:

This is what Rev doesn’t quite get, perhaps because it is hard to play for laughs. Because inner-city clergy deal with the daily consequences of poverty, they inevitably get sucked into the political. Rev suffers under the moral illusion that you can be there for the poor and vulnerable without asking how and why they got into that condition. It depicts the clergy as kindly but politically inert. Some are. Most are not.

…In the English imagination, it’s better to have a weak-minded, kindly priest, even if that means he’s slightly foolish, than a strong-minded certain one…

In Rev we recognise the archetypal weak-minded, kindly English priest, in a challenging modern setting.  There is plenty to laugh at and little to despise because there’s really no harm being done.  There’s not a not of anything being done.  Instead, well-meaning ineffectiveness is sentimentalised.  Angus Ritchie (Director of the Contextual Theology Centre in London) wrote a challenging reflection on the show, going as far as to say that “meaning well” is essentially “to focus entirely on ourselves”, and no real hope to anyone.  Which is the antithesis of the Christian message, which claims to offer something life-changing to everyone.

I’m not saying Rev should look different – whatever its creators make of the church is a valid perspective, and it offers sharp social comedy.  I know the team behind it have done some research within the Anglican church.  But for all the humour, pathos and beauty of the stories, Adam Smallbone’s church is disappointingly empty.  

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To the left, to the left (on politics)

It might not seem like the most likely moment to talk about politics, when my natural instincts are all driving me to dig a big deep hole somewhere and hide away, all mammal-like, to give birth in peace; but for today at least, that’s where my mind is.  So I thought I’d tell you the whole unlikely story of how I got to be a bit of a lefty.

I wasn’t raised that way.  My parents are avid Telegraph subscribers and huge Thatcher fans.  I was brought up thinking that the Iron Lady was the bees’ knees.  Our home was a happy place that day in 1992 when John Major was re-elected Prime Minister.

Well, at least our home was politically aware.  Dad likes to read aloud to us all from The Daily Telegraph comments’ section.  I remember my mum’s seemingly weird obsession with us always knowing who the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary were at any one time (I may have known their names but I didn’t know what they actually did).  My education taught me next to nothing about politics or economics: the concept of having to pay tax on my earnings was first introduced to me by a friend when I was about 20, and I was horrified.  But at least I knew who was in the cabinet.

I can understand how Thatcher bred such loyalty in my parents.  Political ideology aside, they, (we), belonged to a segment of society that did pretty well under her leadership.  We worked and saved and prospered.

It did of course help that we weren’t miners.

In John Smith’s day, my mother’s working class loyalties were re-awoken and there was political tension in the household.  I think she might even have voted for Tony Blair once, but don’t quote me on that.

But still, I just wasn’t that interested in politics.  Hardly anyone around me was.

When I turned up at university and gravitated towards all things theatrical, I encountered for the first time a group of people who read The Guardian, and laughed at my Tory-graph-reading (“Seriously? These papers have a political bias?”).  My new, cool, lefty, arty friends started me on a bit of a drift leftwards, but conviction was still pretty thin on the ground.

So I guess it was really in my 20s that I finally started thinking about politics, and reading things, and working out where I stood.  Justice started to matter to me when I looked at the world and read more of the Bible; my work at Tearfund meant I kept confronting horrendously unfair systems and laws that were locking people in poverty both here and overseas; it became obvious to me that charity was never going to be enough to change the world.  And yet the God I worship seems to always be asking big and awkward questions about what we’re all doing to make things fair and look out for the weakest.  It brings you back to politics pretty fast (boring and messy and compromised as it is, Russell Brand).

But why lefty politics?  One glance across the channel to the US would have you believe that Christian faith is practically synonymous with right-wing politics.  I’ll save that rant for another day; but here’s why that’s not the case for me.

I loved how Peter Ormerod put it in The Guardian this weekend:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, not saying: “Blessed are the rich, because your wealth trickles down and everyone’s a winner.

“Blessed are those who are full, because that means you’re not scrounging off the rest off us.

“Blessed are you who are laughing now, because you’re obviously hardworking, responsible, decent people.”

It would be reductive and misleading simply to describe Jesus as a leftie… But it’s safe to say that, in terms of the left’s usual causes célèbres, Jesus does pretty well: nonviolencesupport for outcasts and outsidersthe redistribution of power and wealth in favour of the powerless and poorforgiveness,taxationreconciliationfigs.

Leaving aside the question of figs, he summarises things pretty well.  I don’t believe in the nonsense of the trickle-down effect; I think that serious work needs to be done to reduce the shocking (and increasing) divide between rich and poor because it makes everyone more miserable as well as just being unfair;  I have even become a huge fan of tax – I love that we all have to contribute to free education and healthcare and roads for everyone.

I am far from an uncritical supporter of all the Labour party has done in the past decades, but their policies and values sit closer to my justice-seeking heart than any of the alternatives, and that’s why I’m a member.  Also, being a member means they have to listen to me.

Yes, things are a little depressing for my parents now, politically.  First I joined the Labour party and then I married a man who actually works at a desk in Labour HQ, with Labour MPs.  I’ve even been to their staff Christmas do.  (It’s fair to say that we don’t talk a lot about politics with the family).

And the reason my mind has turned to all this again this week is because the lefty political organisation which Andy leads, and of which I am a member, is relaunching.  The Christian Socialist Movement has now become Christians on the Left, and relaunches in Parliament tomorrow night.  We are a group of Christians affiliated to, but not owned by, The Labour Party, who care passionately about social justice and believe that we need to pursue it from within politics as well as outside of it.  Oh, and we have this small dream of rewiring the global economic system.

If you are intrigued, baffled, fascinated or just a little bit curious, check out the new website, watch the snazzy new intro vid, and come along tomorrow night:

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And I’d love to hear where the intersection of faith and politics leads you, or how you ended up where you are politically.  You can be right-wing and still my friend.

 

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Whose stories matter?

Last night I went to sit in sauna for an hour.  Well, that was what it felt like, but actually it was a theatre.  I watched a production called ‘A Conversation with my Father’, written and performed by a thoughtful and intelligent protester called Hannah.  It’s headed for the Edinburgh fringe in a week or two (has it really been a year?!) and was previewing in Battersea.  It’s a one-woman show that uses pre-recorded conversations with the performer’s father to explore the issue of protesting.  The performer is an activist, a protester, and she has been kettled in this very city; her father was a policeman for thirty years and, back in the day, bought a new family car with his overtime earnings from policing the miners’ strikes.

So far, so interesting.

Last year probably the best piece of theatre I saw (and certainly the best storytelling I encountered) was Mark Thomas’ autobiographical show, Bravo Figaro, in which he did something decidedly similar – told the story of his relationship with his father using pre-recorded audio tapes of a conversation with his old man. (I loved it so much I dedicated a whole blog to it).

And then there’s the fact that last year I helped devise, write and perform a new piece of theatre looking at the influence of our family histories on the people we become.  My dad featured, briefly, albeit not on tape.  The four of us in our theatre company spent a lot of time raking through the leaves of our family trees and debating (sometimes peacefully, sometimes not) what stories we would be allowed to tell, who had the rights to these stories, and what they all meant.

So it would be fair to say I’ve given these things a lot of thought.

To add another layer of relevance, just a couple of weeks ago our theatre company staged a new show, one I wrote rather than performed, about London, and we featured a character who was a protester, and who claimed to have been kettled (“I’m well proud of that”).  We took a more playful approach (the character was barely out of school), but still, she was there because it matters to us that there is a current of protest and challenge in our city, and that the unauthorised voices are heard.  It’s part of why we love Mark Thomas too.

Returning to last night’s tropical adventure, for all of the context that I loved and resonated with (my dad and I sit on different ends of the political spectrum; he was in the military and I lean towards pacifism; I have protested and he’s more of a law-and-order type) I found myself asking questions about when it works to put your family stories on stage.  Not because it’s sometimes inappropriate to air your dirty laundry in public (although that’s probably true, but not at all an issue with this show), but because of what makes good and important theatre. The show sold itself partly on the clear conflict between father and daughter: one an embodiment of dissent, the other of the status quo and enforced order.  But what in life was a beautiful truth – that both positions were nuanced and compassionate and non-aggressive, that father and daughter respected (and loved) one another and could co-exist peacefully – was less interesting on stage.  Dad the policeman was a really nice guy, and smart too.

For me, the power of Mark Thomas’ piece lay in part in the fact that the father/son conflict was unresolved and would stay that way.  That this wasn’t a story of forgiveness and reconciliation, but of an extravagant and beautiful gift given in spite of their brutal history, and his dad being too old and frail to change.  It spoke hope and grace into pain and blazed a path forward, writing a new ending for their story.  Or a new beginning.

And in a similar vein, the production last night landed with a reflection on how the world will be changed by stories.  That protesting has its place, but stories win people’s hearts and move us to new places and new ways of seeing the world.  (Hear, hear!)  And perhaps that is why Hannah has not been to a protest in a while but has made a piece of theatre to take to the Edinburgh festival (no small feat and I don’t envy her the slog of the next few weeks).  Her story is thoughtful, and well told, and it’s no small thing to bring something so personal to a room of strangers.  But when are our own stories big enough to change other people and to matter to them?  The right answer seems like it should be ‘always’, because I do believe that all our stories matter, and we have to get better at listening to the less familiar ones.  But when should they get put on a stage?

It’s a big question to ask myself as I write a new show and my first book, the latter of which is really a compilation of personal stories (don’t worry dad, you’re not in them).  Why do any of them matter to you?

I guess the answer is that some of them might and some of them won’t.  But my bit is to choose the ones I think matter most and put them out there.  To be part of the conversation.

The show has provoked some great responses and touched many people, so don’t let me discourage you from going (Catch it at the classy Northern Stage at St Stephen’s in Edinburgh).  Especially if you’ve not thought much about protesting and why people do it. It didn’t affect me deeply, maybe because its lack of real conflict failed to speak to my big, unresolved questions.  But it might be just the thing you need.

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A West Wing Birthday

This weekend was the husband’s 40th birthday (I know! Doesn’t he look good for it?!) and so the fruit of 6 months of scheming and 3 1/2 years of vaguely-thinking-about-it all came together in an extravaganza of celebration.  Seriously, I have to tell you about it because keeping the secret for so long has been killing me, and it’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past week.

Andy has an obsession.  Well, two actually, but I was never going to theme a whole weekend around a game of cricket.  He seriously loves The West Wing, that beautiful piece of television aired in the early years of the 21st century on Channel 4, following the Presidency of one Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen.  If you haven’t seen it, go go go to your movie-distributor-of-choice because it is magnificent.  The husband even wrote a song about his addiction to it on his latest album.

Sam-sam-seaborn-28130581-324-400This is his favourite character, Sam Seaborn, originally played by Rob Lowe (until he left for disappointing financial reasons).  I like to think that Andy identifies with him because of his idealism and integrity, his unwavering faith in and love for the American political process and the positive impact that government can have in its citizens’ lives.  But it may be as shallow as his damn good looks.

Did I mention that Andy also *seriously loves* treasure hunts? The way to his heart is not steak and red wine (that would be my heart), but complicated outdoor interactive games.  Which are harder work.  And happen much less often.

But I tried.

On Saturday morning he was commissioned to run for President (his dad was President Bartlett) and assembled a campaigning team – miraculously all his favourite characters had appeared as contacts in his phone, and he could quickly call on his dream team.  The costumes were pretty special.

This is a character called Toby Ziegler

At Speakers’ Corner at noon the Democrat and Republican candidates gave speeches to launch their campaigns.  Republican Jeff Haffley gave us an extraordinary amalgam of Sarah Palin, Clint Eastwood and Tony Blair; Sam Seaborn gave us all a new catchphrase: “Yes We Sam!”

And so they set off.  Four hours of campaigning across London, uploading votes and celebrity endorsements to Facebook (my favourite moment was when Rob Brydon posed for a photo endorsing Sam at Borough Market).  Then there were Swing State Challenges – cheese tasting for Wisconsin, orange squeezing for Florida and playing the slot machines for Nevada (those dastardly Republicans cleaned up in the casino, but simultaneously lost the vote from the Christian Right…).

Danny Concannon was kidnapped in Afghanistan and Lord John Marbury offered to negotiate.  Josh accidentally told the Press that Sam had a secret plan to solve the economic crisis.  Texas, New York and California (those states with a suspiciously high number of electoral college votes) yo-yoed in their allegiance between the two teams, finally (and cataclysmically) swinging to the right.

The tragic outcome was a Republican victory – but there is currently a legal challenge underway, so we’re in Presidential limbo.  Whilst we recount and work out if the Republicans cheated, you should feel free to enjoy our alternative credits, and if you’re as geekish as most of the participants, then there’s a great trivia quiz which Hannah Swithinbank came up with.  No-one scored more than 9, so you could be a champion…

Alternative West WIng Credits from Jen Flannagan on Vimeo.

West WIng trivia

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What’s the point? Practical musings on art and economics

In the midst of festival mania, yesterday I went and heard Tony Benn speak.   There’s a film being made about his life and they were previewing some of it and then Mark Thomas was interviewing him. (The film is excellent and I hereby recommend it).

So I joined hundreds of radical lefties (bringing down the average age) to go listen.

Amongst all the more straightforward lefty political questions, a lady stood up and talked about the fringe.  She said she was increasingly frustrated by the enslavement of artists at the festival (referring I think to the fact that artists don’t make any kind of money up here, and in fact usually end up paying for the privilege of performing), and how all the money is instead going to the landlords of Edinburgh (who hike up rents in August to mind-boggling levels) and, presumably, some of the big producing companies.  She then asked a very generic question – “So what gives you hope?”.

This is our little paper man, Chaim, from our show. He has had to take up busking to survive financially.

I reckon it’s easier to answer that question than to speak into the complexities of the Edinburgh Fringe economy.  I find it easier, anyway. Tony Benn talked about having spent a lifetime working for change and then having seen some things change, and so that makes him think they can.  But what would he have said about the fringe?

Today, as I was flyering and trying to persuade the public to come and see our show, I met a couple who had seen The Ruby Dolls yesterday.  They loved the show, but wanted to know, as festival virgins, what bringing a show here achieved – what are we hoping will happen?

I was on the spot.  (Do I mention wild fantasies of being handpicked for stardom?). No Ruby Dolls were at hand to rescue me.

It all makes me ponder what the point of being here is, one show in 2695, especially given the ridiculous money involved that rarely comes back to you. My answer to the lovely couple was about reaching a big new audience with your show and getting press attention all of which will open doors for future work and tours and the like.

But why is it so flipping hard to make art work economically? Answers on a postcard please.

On the one hand, I look at lots of actor friends who struggle and work hard and have their sense of self-worth eroded year after year by crappy jobs and lack of progress and instability.  And I want to shout ‘ENOUGH!’ Why do something that makes everyone so miserable?

And at the same time, I believe passionately that art and creativity are crucial, at the very core of who we are.  Wonderful art enlarges us all, takes us places nothing else can, makes news ways of living and thinking possible.  I don’t want people to give up.  I don’t want to give up (most days).

So the only answer I have at the moment is to engage our imaginations and creativity in finding ways to make it work that are weird and wonderful and unlikely – involving combining different kinds of work and ways of living.  (Hence I shall continue to search out people who do this and write about them in my blog). Like this bloke said:

“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.” ~Robert Henri

 

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