Saturday, December 23, 2006

Special (15)

Written and Directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore Screening at FACT from 22nd-24th December 2006

Special is a parable for our medicated times, because the western world is in the grip of a great depression. It has recently been estimated that one in four people suffer from some kind of mental health problem in the UK each year. On Merseyside, the male suicide rate doubled in 2005. Governments aren't keen on looking deeply into the causes, because they know that while human genetics has not changed drastically since rates began climbing in the 1970s, society certainly has, and they like the changes. For them, it's better just to chuck pills at the problem, which is great for the profits of drug companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, or the British-based GlaxoSmithKline.

When we meet Les (Michael Rapaport), he is a traffic cop who feels unloved and unvalued by the world around him. He is given the chance to go on a drug trial for a major new anti-depressant being developed by the Special corporation. A comic book enthusiast, he is surprised and delighted to discover that the tablets give him special powers. When he thwarts an armed robbery at a convenience store by reading the gunman's mind, Les decides to hang up his uniform and ticket book, and become a superhero like in his comics.

Which is great, apart from the fact that obviously Les hasn't got any special powers, he can't fly, and his bloodied face is evidence that he certainly can't run through walls. So our delusional non-hero causes havoc in store after store, getting on a Crimewatch-style TV show and making the drug company whose logo he wears very worried indeed. To Les, this is just a conspiracy between the 'suits', the police, and maybe every single person he meets.

The writers handle the subject of mental distress with great sensitivity, and their sympathy is clearly with the victims of the 'mental health' system and the downtrodden people it feeds on. Even the laughs are sympathetic ones, because who hasn't believed they had super powers at one time or another?

Rapaport is sensationally believable in his first lead role, while the supporting cast of a puzzled doctor (Jack Kehler), drug company execs (Paul Blackthorne, Ian Bohen) and Les' comic store buddies (Josh Peck, Robert Baker).

Special is a subtly beautiful warning that chemical straitjackets may damage your health.

Read my interview with mental distress activist Amy Sanderson here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Jungle Jam/The Black Moss

Chelpa Ferro and Juneau/projects
FACT Centre, Wood Street
8th December 2006 - 21st January 2007 (Tue-Sun 11am-6pm)

If you are reading this between 8th December 2006 and 21st January 2007, on any day Tuesday to Sunday after 11am and before 6pm, there is huge environmental damage being done at Gallery 1 of the FACT centre.

There, a computer is instructing motors to spin round in various patterns, whacking plastic bags against the walls. This is ‘Jungle Jam’ – the work of Brazilian artists Chelpa Ferro (‘old money’) – so this must be art. The bags – which are just like those you could buy in Home and Bargain – came all the way from South America, by plane presumably. The computer and motors create carbon emissions far in excess of any artistic merits. "Different bags make different sounds”, explained one of the trio. Quite.

In Gallery 2, Juneau/projects’ ‘The Black Moss’ is the far more interesting, and much less harmful to the planet 'I’m Going To Antler You’. Unless those animal skin rugs are real, in which case it’s a close run thing. At least the music – which comes from the hand-painted drum kit – is only triggered by someone being near enough to hear it. The songs come from young bands Ebony Angels and The Ambers, who were formed in two Birmingham youth groups. They designed their own logos and costumes, and the room has a nice kind of playfulness about it.

Then there’s this kind of retro eighties computer game called ‘Beneath the floorboards of the forest, empty space’, where a Stephen Hawking-alike voice reads poetic descriptions of nature and the gallerygoer’s mission – should they choose to accept it – is to escape from a forest by selecting north, south, east, west and other options like washing your face. In my twenty-five minutes I angered a blackbird and was stung by the ‘enormous barb’ of the same hornet on three separate occasions. Then I have to admit I gave up. An attendant told me it can be done, in about two days.

But the best part of this exhibition – perhaps the best part of any exhibition I’ve seen this year – is the misleadingly titled ‘Instincts are misleading (you shouldn't think what you're feeling)’. The Media Lounge has been made over into a kind of grotto, where mellow music plays, and visitors can make their own creatures out of pipe cleaners, glue and various bits and pieces. These creations are then photographed and placed on a ‘shrine’ to nature, and each creator takes home a complimentary cd. If the capital of culture year was that and nothing else, I’d be made up.

Monday, December 18, 2006

T&GWU Negotiates Defeat For Liverpool Cabbies

In another setback for workers on Merseyside, the Transport and General Workers Union has negotiated a defeat for its taxi driving members and taxi users at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.

Though the union are claiming victory, it seems cab drivers at the airport will have to pay £1 every time they want to use the taxi rank, starting in February.

Last week, the TGWU announced that more than 500 of its members would take part in a ‘drive-slow’ around Speke on Friday 15th December, in protest at £7 per day fees demanded by Peel Holdings, who own John Lennon Airport.

At the time, union leaders accused airport owners Peel Holdings of "greedy profiteering" and called the fees "arbitrary, unfair and unrealistic".

The airport had threatened to bring in private hire vehicles - effectively strikebreakers - to run the service if the taxi drivers refused to pay the fee.

JLA insisted it was one of the only airports in the country that did not charge, and needed to find ways of plugging the losses it suffers. But here they were clearly using the word 'losses' to mean additional profits they were missing out on. Last year, Peel Holdings bought Mersey Docks for £780 million, then sold a 49% stake in that company for £750 million - a huge markup. Their 2005 earnings were £100 million.

The drive-slow was called off at the last minute after the new plan to introduce a £1 a time card-operated barrier to the taxi rank was agreed.

Kevin Maguire, the Transport and General Workers Union's representative who liaised with the airport, said: "The details of how the barrier system is going to work and be implemented is still under negotiation. A number of meetings are planned for the new year to discuss the best way forward. We thought a permit system was unfair and restrictive as it would only have allowed a small number of hackneys. With a barrier, any hackney driver will be able to apply for a swipe card. It is likely that most drivers will pass the charge on to the customer."

So there we have it. If a driver picks up eight customers from the airport in one day, they will have to pay more than the £7 a day originally threatened. Extra costs will be passed onto the customers, who will in effect be putting their money into the pockets of Peel shareholders. Meanwhile, cabbies will have to put up with the nuisance of carrying the swipe cards.

This is yet another illustration of how the traditional trade union strategies are unable to meet the needs of workers. At best, leaders take the edge of attacks, negotiating bosses down slightly from their opening bids. At worst, they openly collude with business to earn knighthoods, seats in the House of Lords, or on corporate boards. Revolutionary workers’ organisations are needed, with the aim of abolishing the profit system and the vampiric boss class.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Imagine Cabbies on 'Drive-Slow' at John Lennon Airport

Liverpool cab drivers are taking part in a 'drive-slow' in Speke on Friday, in protest against £7 per day fees demanded by John Lennon Airport.

More than 500 taxis are scheduled to block Speke roads, after the drivers were told they will have to pay a new annual fee of £2,500 to pick up passengers flying to the city.

Last night union leaders accused airport owner Peel Holdings of "greedy profiteering" and called the fees "arbitrary, unfair and unrealistic". Negotiations broke down last week when drivers said they refused to accept a reduced offer of £1,920. They were then given until today to change their minds.

The airport claim the money will be used to improve facilities for drivers, and will cover a 'free' course on being an 'a Liverpool ambassador' during Capital of Culture year in 2008.

This is clearly ridiculous, for two reasons. Firstly, if you have to pay for a course, it is clearly not free! Secondly, no-one knows Liverpool better than cabbies, so they do not need any training in showing people round the city.

The airport has threatened to bring in private hire vehicles - effectively strike-breakers - to run the service if the taxi drivers refuse to pay the fee.

JLA insists it is one of the only airports in the country that does not charge, and needed to find ways of plugging the losses it suffers. But here they are clearly using the word 'losses' to mean additional profits. Last year, Peel Holdings bought Mersey Docks for £780 million, then sold a 49% stake in that company for £750 million - a huge markup. Their 2005 earnings were £100 million.

Tommy McIntyre, T&G convener for hackney cab drivers, said: "They have just plucked this figure out of thin air. They cannot give us a breakdown of what it covers. At Manchester Airport, the drivers pay a fee but it is only £260. They have threatened to bring in private-hire drivers but that means people will have to book them in advance. Also, they don't have the same wheelchair facilities. And they would only have to put up their fees to cover the charges so it would be the passengers losing out. There is no way we can recoup the money because our fares are fixed by the council. This will put a lot of people on the dole. In the run-up to 2008, this is the last thing the airport should be doing."

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The U.S. vs John Lennon (12A)

Written and Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld
Screening at FACT and Cineworld from 9th December 2006

Living on Merseyside, and being subjected to Beatles cash-ins around every corner, it is easy to forget that the band were once more than just the brand. In fact, one of the ‘fab four’, John Winston Lennon, went on to become a protest singer who hung out with some of the most famous 1970s American radicals. But it was his anti-war work which annoyed authorities the most, and his determination to get US forces out of Vietnam was matched only by Richard Nixon’s keep them in, and deport Lennon back to Britain. This documentary tells the story of the battle between the United States political establishment and the Liverpool lad who really did shake the world.

John Lennon first came to the attention of the FBI in 1971, when he performed at a benefit concert for jailed MC5 manager and Detroit activist John Sinclair, sharing a stage with Black Panther Bobby Seale and Yippiee Jerry Rubin. There was talk of a tour encouraging young people to vote for anti-war presidential candidates, but this was stopped by Nixon’s deportation orders, which were served on the ridiculous basis that Lennon had been done for marijuana possession in Britain.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon features archive footage interspersed with talking head interviews. Unfortunately, it focuses too much on the mechanics of the case, giving little idea of the wider anti-war movement. The choice of interviewees – or possibly of which comments are screened – is woefully uninspired. Many of the former radicals – such as Seale and Stew Albert (who died shortly after the film was shot) – gave up their activism decades ago, and offer nothing exciting here. Contributors from the FBI from the Nixon White House fail to deviate from their party line, even thirty-five years on. The only comment worth repeating comes from writer Gore Vidal, who links the slaughter in Vietnam to the one currently unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan: “John Lennon represented life; Mr. Nixon and Mr. Bush represent death.”

Vidal’s remark begs the question, what would happen if a John Lennon figure was on the scene today, with twenty first century media technology and an even bigger chasm dividing rich and poor? There are quite a few anti-capitalist rock stars based in the United States, but only one – Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello – has taken his fight onto the streets. Celebrities don’t stop wars or make revolutions, but they can help ignite the spark of rebellion in the minds of a generation.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tug Workers To Block The Docks?

The port of Liverpool could be shut down by a series of tug strikes, bringing back memories of the dockers’ dispute in the 1990s. Workers are angry that they are currently registered in the Channel Islands, and therefore lose their 12.5% National Insurance payments.

Tug workers employed at the Liverpool port - as well as those in Hull and Immingham, Gravesend and the Medway, Felixstowe, and Southampton - could be balloted over strike action if their employers refuse to register them ‘on-shore’.

Adsteam are currently negotiating a merger with their main rival Svitzer, which is owned by shipping conglomerate Maersk.

Tug operators are essential workers in the UK ports. If they do vote to strike, it could mean the main ports in the UK coming to a standstill.

The Transport and General Workers Union accuse Adsteam of “trousering” savings on National Insurance made by registering the tug workers in Guernsey for the last three years. Richard Crease, the T&G chair of the Adsteam national shop stewards committee, said the proposed takeover of Adsteam by Svitzer had brought the dispute into focus.

“We have never felt happy with Adsteam moving our employment registration ‘off-shore’ and believe the time is right to restore us to the mainland.

“Adsteam seem adamant that it is not their responsibility and prefer to pass the buck to Svitzer. We don’t agree and that’s why we have a dispute which is now likely to go to a strike ballot.”

Adsteam’s chief executive Europe, Stephen Eastwood replied that “Adsteam have been considering for some time the return of employees from Guernsey to the UK.

“The transfer to Guernsey was originally made in April 2003 to take advantage of rules relating to offshore manning of British flagged vessels, which resulted in a saving in National Insurance Contributions.

“Following a change in UK Legislation, offshore manning finished in October 2003. Since that time Adsteam employees and the payroll centre have remained in Guernsey. The transfer back to the UK has some potential complications in terms of employment contracts, which need to be resolved. In principle the company has no objection to the change because it would have no benefit or detriment to either company or employees.”

Eastwood’s answer is mealy-mouthed politician-speak. Adsteam don’t want to register on the mainland because it would cost them the 12.5% National Insurance payments. A strike - which would deprive the company of profits - is the best way of making them sit up and take notice.

However, tug workers should remember the TGWU’s role in the 1995-98 Liverpool dockers’ strike, and make sure their leadership doesn’t sell them out for a knighthood and a seat in the House of Lords.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Merseyside Fire Authority Stir Up More Trouble

Following the partial defeat of their cuts agenda this summer, Merseyside Fire Authority is trying to get its own back, and weaken the morale of victorious firefighters. Three weeks ago, letters were served to fourteen emergency crew members, calling them to hearings over incidents during the walkout, including one for 'smiling aggressively'. Now a firefighter is in trouble for drinking a cup of tea!

After four weeks of strike action this September, Merseyside FBU succeeded in saving essential services from 3.5 million of cuts demanded by the government. Instead, the cuts were moved away from the frontline.

Now, a firefighter faces disciplinary proceedings after being caught having a cuppa while working at Buckley Hill fire station in Netherton.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service insists tea breaks can be taken only at certain times, and the first firefighter to break the rule was caught with an unauthorised mug of tea while checking equipment in an appliance room.

Managers launched an investigation and told the firefighter - who has asked not to be named - that he would be put on a charge and face disciplinary proceedings once his initial interview was looked at.

Les Skarratts, secretary of Merseyside Fire Brigades Union, said: "They should stop being so petty and ridiculous. Firefighters save lives and they have enough to put up with without this nonsense.

"This firefighter was doing his daily checks and tests in the appliance room, and had taken a hot drink with him. That is not worthy of a disciplinary investigation.

"He will be interviewed by senior managers and undergo a disciplinary hearing. He could get a written warning on an otherwise exemplary service record, but the ultimate sanction is that he could lose his job."

Senior officers have sent a series of emails banning firefighters from enjoying a cuppa outside designated breaks.

Mr Skarratts said: "It is a waste of public money and firefighters' time issuing these edicts. We are very frustrated over this."

Firefighters on Merseyside have a lot to smile about following their tremendous victory, which was won thanks to great solidarity, in spite of a corporate media campaign against the union. Not surprisingly, the bosses who tried to break the FBU can't bear to see happy - or even relaxed - workers.

For in-depth analysis of the dispute, visit the Liverpool indymedia feature

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NHS Blood Workers See Red

Workers are considering a walkout to stop the government closing 14 regional blood centres around England.

The centres - in Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Tooting, Colindale, Brentwood, Oxford and Cambridge - are under threat because the government wants to build three super-centres, in Bristol and at two un-named sites in the North and South East.

Though this might save money, it will cost hundreds of jobs and put lives at risk, with blood supplies taking much longer to reach their destinations.

Amicus leaders said they were “extremely concerned” about the future of the NHS Blood Service, in Estuary Banks, Speke, and around the country. Amicus is currently preparing to ballot its members for strike action after a consultative vote showed 81% of Amicus members working at the centres are in favour of industrial action.

A spokeswoman for the Blood Authority demonstrated it is all down to money when she said:
"Hospitals are now paying
£70m a year more for blood than they were a few years ago. We need to become more efficient to allow this money to be spent on frontline care."

Hopefully blood workers will strike, but workers in Amicus need to join up their struggles with NHS workers in Unison and other unions. Of course, working class people depend on the NHS, so we must organise in our communities to protect and improve services.
Remember, £70m is next to nothing compared to the possible £70 billion the government is willing to spend on renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

Teenage Mother Abducted in Toxteth

A teenage rape victim and her toddler son were abducted in a dawn raid yesterday, victims of a fearsome armed gang known as the 'United Kingdom government'.

Medical student Charlie Happi Kouamaka and 21-month-old Christopher, who was born in Liverpool Women's hospital, were snatched on Tuesday morning, and the 'UK' gang plans to 'deport' (a sinister codeword for the physical removal from the UK 'patch') the pair to Cameroon on Thursday.

John Reid - who holds the post of 'Home Secretary' in the gang's hierarchy and is rumoured to have designs on the top job when current godfather Tony 'Soprano' Blair retires - is due to hear some pleas for mercy before the grisly event takes place.

Even local gang representative Louise Ellman - who is normally very loyal to her superiors and consistently pushes for stronger support of a gang known as 'Israel' - said: "This is an horrendous case and she must have the chance to launch a final appeal."

Ms Kouamaka was beaten and raped for 17 months because she refused to become the 18th wife of her village chieftain in Cameroon.

According to new evidence emerging through the Red Cross - a medical organisation which tries to patch-up victims of violence within and between gangs - Charlie was "held naked by the chieftain, whipped while hosed with water, had hot chillies put on her wounds and was frequently raped."

Charlie fled to the city of Duala, before escaping to a land known as 'Britain' two years ago and asking for asylum. She was 16.

In September 2004, Charlie discovered she was pregnant following a rape.

At the Women's hospital she met 'Father' Peter Morgan who said: "She was the most traumatised young woman I had come across... and I have seen a lot."

Fr Morgan, chairman of the Merseyside refugee group that works with rape victims, said: "She is the most honest, the loveliest and and kindest of people.

"She is a very shy and retiring person who doesn't project herself in any way. We believe everything she says and we have a lot of experience in this field. Cameroon has an appalling record on the treatment of women."

Ms Kouamaka gave birth at the hospital in February 2005 and has been learning English at Liverpool Community College, where she became popular for her expertise in African hair dressing.

She had started a course in health medicine and hoped to become a doctor, affiliated to the 'UK' gang.

'Father' Morgan said: "She is extremely bright. If she is allowed to stay she could qualify in any field."

But her appeal was turned down when 'Home Office' officials accepted claims from their Cameroon counterparts that she had not been abused and would not be if returned.

Since then more evidence has been given that her relatives were interrogated and beaten in efforts to track her down and return her to the chief she refused to marry.

Solicitor Peter Simm - who earns increased rations by petitioning 'UK' dons for mercy - drew up a renewed appeal, but immigration officers snatched her and her child from her flat in Belvedere Road in Toxteth early yesterday morning.

They were taken to Yarls Wood near Bedford, a detention centre notorious for poor conditions, and her supporters were given notice that the duo will be expelled on Thursday.

Mrs Ellman said: "There is a procedure that an MP can obtain a stopping order if new evidence has emerged. That is certainly the case here.

"It is not acceptable that a 19-year-old rape victim and a Liverpool-born child should be treated in this way."

A 'home office' spokesman said: "An appeal was lodged and turned down. Proper procedures have been followed."

Reckless disregard for human emotion is to be expected from the 'UK' gang, who will seemingly stop at nothing to increase their wealth and their influence. However, they are shooting themselves in the foot by 'deporting' a young woman who wishes to serve in their hospitals, and a young child who can be put through their twelve-step brainwashing camp, which could turn him into a passive consumer of 'UK' products, loyal worker, and possibly even a foot-soldier in future turf wars.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth (15)

Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screening at FACT from 24th November - 14th December 2006

All fairytales are based on reality. After all, they are created by real people, in real situations. You'll be hard pressed to find a fairy in the material world, but the fact that imaginations conjure them up holds a mirror to that material existence. The best fairytales therefore reflect reality, and yet go beyond it, revealing something far deeper than the five senses can normally perceive. Pan's Labyrinth definitely belongs in that category, giving us an insight into war through the eyes of a child.

Using the medium of my typed words, transport yourself to Spain in 1943. Franco's counter-revolution is almost complete, and fascists have almost total control. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is travelling through the countryside with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil), towards the castle where her new 'father', Capitán Vidal (Sergi López) plans and executes his vicious retribution against the revolutionaries whose 'false' belief in human equality forces them into the mountains. Trapped by her own circumstances, Ofelia begins to fantasise about fauns, magic kingdoms and labyrinths.

Despite a relatively small budget, the visuals stand up well to comparisons with The Chronicles Of Narnia and Lord Of The Rings. They take influences from Goya to the gods of Ancient Rome, before blending into a super-real image of a ten-year-old's imagination, as designed by Guillermo del Toro.

It is very intriguing that Pan's Labyrinth is getting a massive push in the media, with at least three critics describing it as their film of the year. Certain scenes are timely reminders of the depths to which supposedly democratic western governments are eagerly sinking. The film paints the bloodthirsty, brutal government as the baddies, so those who resist it are the goodies.

I just wish we’d had this fairytale in school instead of the Bible.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Nothing Left to Lose

Directed by Tanushka Marah
Unity Theatre (17th & 18th November 2006)

War, and the pity of war, is the subject of this moving, enthralling and powerfully poetical piece of physical theatre from Company:Collision.

The play begins with two childlike puppets arguing over where they will play. The smaller one wants to play in the bigger one's room, as it is larger. When words fail, the bigger puppet threatens violence, and the smaller one says that mum is on his/her side. It is a scene familiar to anyone who has a brother or sister, or indeed anyone who has witnessed a conflict over scarce resources. Which is probably everyone reading this, because that's the only kind of conflict there is, if you think about it.

Anyway, the games begin, and we are introduced to the six flesh-and-blood 'dolls' - played by Liz Griffiths, John Healey, David Kelly, Sarah Leaver, Bronwyn Lim, Tanushka Marah and Ira Seidenstein - whose story this is. Each is dressed in rags and covered in dust and sand following a series of explosions. They speak in a language especially invented for the production, but through repetition, exaggerated movements and the universality of human feelings such as love, fear and bereavement, everyone soon knows exactly what's going on.

The dirty half dozen live in a place that is being bombarded by an army somewhere in the audience. They cause seems hopelessly lost, but they must fight on, because they have nothing left to lose.

It is impossible to praise this performance too highly. Every movement is perfectly executed, every note sung is pitch-perfect and oozes emotion. And the effort the actors must have gone to in learning this fictional language was handsomely rewarded by the rapturous applause they received at the end of the show. Special praise must also go to the writers, for applying their vivid imaginations so productively.

Though we were watching make-believe dolls in an unspecified location, the audience was left in no doubt that we were really witnessing life in Iraq, Palestine, and anywhere else that an armed resistance movement is taking on a brutal occupation. However, if there is such a thing as a human condition, it is an element within us that can and must co-operate in order to survive when the chips are down, an element that cannot be conquered through mere shock and awe firepower. This shone through the performance, and made the whole experience somehow hopeful.

A massive amount of talent was involved in the making of Nothing Left to Lose, so forget The Sound of Music, Company:Collision deserve much wider exposure.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Unions Fight Own Members!

Officials from the TGWU, Amicus and the GMB are backing the Jaguar car company rather than their own members in a pay dispute!

Workers at Halewood in Merseyside, Castle Bromwich in Birmingham and Browns Lane and Whitley in Coventry have been offered a 4% pay rise, balanced against changes in working practices and 'flexibility' - for which read workers bending over backwards to make money for their employers.

This deal was rejected by 2,101 votes (53%) to 1,878 (47%) on Friday, but trade union officials are refusing to accept this verdict.

After meetings on Monday, a spokesman for the T&G said: "The negotiators still felt the company's offer was one they could recommend.

"So further and more detailed consultations will take place with shop stewards in the plants."

This is yet another betrayal by trade union leadership, and workers must refuse to back down in the fight for decent wages and working conditions. All of us have to organise democratically in our workplaces and neighbourhoods to combat the capitalist class, because elected 'representatives' are never going to do it for us.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Merseyside Firefighter in Trouble for Smiling 'Aggressively'

Following the partial defeat of their cuts agenda this summer, Merseyside Fire Authority is trying to get its own back, and weaken the morale of victorious firefighters. Letters have been served to fourteen emergency crew members, calling them to hearings over incidents during the walkout.

After four weeks of strike action this September, Merseyside FBU succeeded in saving essential services from 3.5 million of cuts demanded by the government. Instead, the cuts were moved away from the frontline.

Now fourteen firefighters are being lined-up for disciplinary hearings over seemingly trivial 'offences'. One incident involves claims that one fire officer was allegedly "smiling too aggressively".

Last night, Merseyside's Fire Brigade Union chairman Mark Dunne said: "We have had 14 calls from firefighters who have been told they face disciplinary action because of the strike.

"It is over very low level incidents. One is for smiling aggressively and there are also ones for being rowdy and boisterous.

"It is unbelievable, particularly as both sides signed a back to work agreement which was supposed to mean that neither side would use the strike against the other.

"The problem seems to be that station managers and area managers are ignorant about the agreement."

Firefighters on Merseyside have a lot to smile about following their tremendous victory, which was won thanks to great solidarity, in spite of a corporate media campaign against the union. Not surprisingly, the bosses who tried to break the FBU can't bear to see happy workers.

For in-depth analysis of the dispute, visit the Liverpool Indymedia feature.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ten Days In The Class War

It was just eighty years ago - within living memory - and it took place on the streets where we walk every day, but it seems like a different world. Merseyside almost came to an almost total standstill as workers downed tools and joined together to fight against the rich and the government that represented them.

Liverpool is a city that was built on its status as a slave port, and its docks. While slavery was officially abolished two centuries ago, the docks and accompanying trades were ran by workers whose living conditions were often almost as bad as their unpaid counterparts. By the beginning of the 1900s, workers whose parents and grandparents had come from Ireland, Scotland and Wales were beginning to put their religious differences aside so that they could unite and fight for better pay. In 1911, a transport strike brought together dockers, railway workers and sailors in a campaign that paralysed business for most of the summer. Eight years later, following the end of World War One, 95% of Liverpool’s police went on strike, with the many returning soldiers in their ranks looking to be rewarded for fighting abroad. They were supported by many more workers in the city, who sensed this was a good chance to get the cops on their side. Before the army was called in, there was widespread looting, and the Daily Post described the area between London Road and Scotland as a ‘war zone’.

Even though the schoolbooks normally claim that the 1920s was a time of great prosperity before the ‘great depression’ of the 1930s, they are talking from the standpoint of the already wealthy. For the working class, conditions were still very hard, and poor people were getting increasingly angry about the ever-growing gulf between their lives and those of the rich. It just needed one spark to set that anger off.

Ever since World War One, the coal industry had been declining in Britain, but the mine owners had got very used to their lifestyles, and weren’t prepared to give up a penny in profit. So they announced a plan to reduce wages. This incensed the miners, and the working class generally saw it as sign of things to come. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin confirmed their fears, when he told representatives of the miners that “all the workers of this country have got to face a reduction of wages”. It became obvious to many that there was a conflict between the rich who didn’t have to work for a living and the poor who did. It was class war!

The government announced that they would pay the ‘extra’ wages of the miners while an inquiry look into the future of mining. When the inquiry backed the demands of the mine owners that wages should be cut by between 10% and 25%, the gloves were off. On 1st May 1926 – International Workers’ Day – the Trades Union Congress declared that all their members should refuse to work, and declared a general strike "in defence of miners' wages and hours".

Though the government had been drawing-up battle plans for over a year (stockpiling coal, passing various laws), the TUC was caught almost unprepared. Strange though it may seem, many union leaders wanted to avoid a confrontation more than the government did, and feared that revolution could break out, throwing ‘moderate’ leaders out of power. J.R. Cleynes of the General and Municipal Workers union expressed this clearly, when he said “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.”

The government declared a state of emergency, and warships docked all around the country. HMS Ramilies and HMS Barham lurked ominously in the Mersey, while two battalions of troops were sent to Liverpool. Clearly, Britain’s second largest port was of great strategic importance.

Workers on Merseyside were among the best organised. Local activists had begun to set up a ‘council of action’ ten months before the strike, and had established a reliable network of communication. This was important, because most of the commercial presses had been stopped or severely restricted, and the Council of Action needed to let people know what was going on. Out of four million strikers, Merseyside provided about one hundred thousand. On the second day, the Council of Action reported that all all engineers and shipyard workers on the Mersey were out. In Birkenhead and Wallasey, a group of strikers attacked the trams and brought them to a halt. Some people returned to work after a few days, while a strange alliance of unemployed and rich people became ‘blacklegs’ and crossed picket lines. But generally the strike was solid, and would probably have continued far beyond ten days, had the TUC leaders not negotiated a return to work with the government.

‘Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay’ had been the slogan of the miners, but the TUC agreed to all mine owners’ and the government’s demands. The only concession they asked for was that the law would prevent any victimisation of the strikers. When this was refused, the TUC obligingly ended the strike anyway. As a direct consequence, several hundred workers in Liverpool’s flour milling industry were sacked for their role in the strike.

The working class made some limited gains in the period after World War Two, but governments since the mid 1970s have mounted a sustained attack on pay, union and unemployment rights. Poverty levels have risen dramatically, while health inequality is at levels not seen ‘since Victorian times’, according to a 2005 report published by the British Medical Journal. So why don’t millions of people go on strike these days? Well, in March this year 1.5 million joined a strike against the government’s plans to make people work longer for their pensions. Ok, so it was only one day, but it was a start.

Liverpool is a very different city now compared to eighty years ago. The types of jobs people do are more office or shop based, instead of the heavy industry that used to dominate. But the essential character of work is the same. You go in, do your time, and the rich get richer off your back. In fact, workers get an even smaller share of the money they bring in than in 1926. What would our city look like if everyone stopped working and demanded change? It’s time to start imagining, because things can’t carry on the way they are.

A timeline of events on Merseyside during the 1926 general strike can be studied here.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Borat! (15)

Unless you've been living under the proverbial rock for the past month or so, you will have noticed practically every single reviewer in the world competing to make up the most overblown description of how funny this film is. And they're right, it is hilarious. However, one of the drawbacks of being this particular reviewer is I that must analyse everything, including why people think things are funny. And as someone who is sickened by sexism, racism and homophobia, why do I laugh when it comes from the mouth of this particular man, Sacha Baron Cohen, in his guise of a reporter from Kazakhstan?

The Borat character has been appearing in five minute slots on Cohen's TV shows for a few years now, confronting high and mighty Americans with his detestable opinions and naivety about western culture. Those segments were almost always memorable, as Borat drew embarrassing and astonishing statements from his targets. The humour came when the establishment figures showed that they actually agreed with their interviewer's bigotry. Why was that funny? Maybe because they were removing their masks, letting us catch a glimpse of the hatred and insanity we knew was there all along. Perhaps we hoped that this would lead to their removal from power.

This film is almost the complete opposite of those improvised routines. To stretch the character over the length of 84 minutes, we are subjected to a forced, highly scripted 'story' about Borat travelling across America to find Pamela Anderson, who he fell for whilst watching Baywatch in a hotel room. Pamela seems to be in on the joke, as does the woman who plays a prostitute in a few scenes.

But there are still loads of great set-pieces, such as Borat telling a rodeo crowd that he supports America's 'war of terror' (which they cheer) and sings Kazakh nationalist lyrics to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner (which they certainly don't). He also makes friends with 'Mr Jesus', causes mayhem in a Confederate-supporting antiques shop, and tries to learn the rules of upper class etiquette.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (which will never be beaten) this was my strangest cinema experience ever. Several times, the entire audience howled and shrieked with laughter, only to fall deadly silent or recoil in shock the very next second. Why? Because it's funny when someone pretends to be outrageously offensive, but when a rodeo worker tells the camera he wants homosexuals to be executed you can only fear for the future.

This can't be in any sense a true picture of America - that lies on the digital cutting room floor - and it certainly has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. But it is funny. I think.

Red Road (18)

When Red Road premièred at this year's Cannes festival, some cinéastes apparently marvelled at how writer/director Andrea Arnold had created such a realistic-looking Orwellian dystopia in Britain, one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Little did the poor little rich reviewers realise, the bleak and dilapidated Red Road area of Glasgow is genuine; actual flesh and blood people live there. The set was a readymade provided by 21st century capitalist society.

There are currently 4.2 million CCTV cameras in this country, and in this film Jackie (Katie Dickie) monitors a bank of about thirty, covering an impoverished area in Scotland's second city. Her life is lonely but quiet and ordered, until one day she recognises a face from her past (that of Tony Curran) on one of the screens. Gradually, Jackie is drawn into the shadowy realm inhabited by the flotsam of society.

And when I say it's a shadowy realm, I mean it, because Arnold is leading a new wave of Scots inspired by the Dogme 95 'Vow of Chastity' rules established by Danish film makers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, which means there is no extra lighting, and no gimmicky use of computers, sound effects or any other Hollywood weapons of mass distraction.

All that means that the story, script and acting have to be top notch, and Red Road scores two and a half out of three on that score. The main premise - once it's finally revealed - is almost literally unbelievable, and that takes some of the 'shine' off, even though that seems completely the wrong word for what may be the most realistic-looking Orwellian dystopia I have ever seen. On a cinema screen anyway.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Triumph of Stuckism, School of Art & Design, Hope Street

Though the Stuckists’ show at the last Biennial prepared me slightly, it is still surprising to see so many modern paintings of actual things in one exhibition space. But then that’s the whole point of the Stuckists, to stick Tracey Emin’s postmodernism where the sun don’t shine and get back to producing artwork that everyone can enjoy (apart from some critics who made their names talking about $4 million sharks in formaldehyde and unmade beds).

This is a much smaller collection than the one so claustrophobically displayed at the Walker two years ago, but it is all of the same exciting standard. There are vivid colours everywhere, and more vivid insights into the minds of each artist, multiplied or divided by the viewer’s own imagination.

Bill Lewis' Self Portrait shows him under the moonlight, wearing a purple satin shirt and holding a pair of antlers, whilst a timepiece-wearing fox looks on. What must a night out with him be like, eh? Jaime Braz brings a touch of surrealism to the proceedings, with his Adieu, Sardine Attack and Stray Cars Mating Season offerings. And in Guy Denning's The Madness of King George, a man and a woman scream their millennial fury, surrounded by scribbled curses against Bush the Second and his partners in crime.

But Naive John is first among equals, and not because he is the Liverpool-based curator. The Other (above) portrays a centaur waiting for a bus, in a bizarre but breathtakingly beautiful creation, while
An Unmedicated Disaster on Upper Parliament Street presents exactly what it says - and the results certainly aren't disastrous.

The Stuckists are anything but stuck. If art has a future, if the proverbial person in the street is ever going to get excited by art, then that art will be made by that proverbial person in the street. Or at the bus stop. People like the triumphant Stuckists.

To read the Stuckist manifesto, visit here

Liverpool Fingerprint Frenzy!

The last two days has seen the Echo/Daily Post publish two stories about compulsory fingerprinting in Liverpool. These are a couple more steps down the line to creating an Orwellian nightmare in a city that already has more CCTV cameras per person than any other in the country, and where police have floated the idea of using military-style 'drones'.

Yesterday, it was revealed that Liverpool faith schools will be introducing scanners which read children's thumb prints when they buy school meals. No-one from the school was available to comment, but one parent said: "To me, the electronic scanning of seven-year-old children's thumbs is not in their best interests.

"About a month ago, we were first told a new cashless system would be coming into operation.

"If you really do not want your child's thumb scanned, they can input a six-digit number instead. So why use the thumb print at all?

"The previous system worked well for years, so I cannot think of a valid reason to introduce this."

This evening, Merseyside Police are said to be "seriously considering" taking fingerprints from drinkers and clubbers before they enter bars and clubs.

The paper claims that this is 'a bid to stamp out alcohol-related crime', and 'all revellers would have their right index fingers scanned by a computer and their details and photographs stored on a database.

'Biometric details of individuals along with their name, address and date of birth would be recorded as they enter licensed premises, the data being shared by all pub landlords and club managers in the city, so known trouble-makers could be tracked.'

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Marie Antoinette (12A)

If there’s one thing most people know about Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, it’s that she was a rich bitch who didn’t give a damn about the poor. Ok, so she may not actually have said ‘let them eat cake’ when told that people didn’t have enough bread, but she might as well have done. So it is interesting that Sophia Coppola – heir to her father’s throne – tries to portray the pampered aristocrat as somehow deserving of sympathy in this biopic.

As a teenager, Marie Antoinette of Austria (played here by Kirsten Dunst) was married off to the dauphin Louis (Jason Schwartzman). He was the French equivalent of Prince Charles, making her the equivalent of Di. In fact that analogy stands up quite well, because they were totally incompatible, yet pressurised into producing a male child, and she ended-up having an affair with an aristocratic military man (Jamie Dornan). All this takes place amidst fantastic, obscene riches, strict protocol, and hair that gets progressively bigger as the film goes on.

In Sophia Coppola’s version of reality, Antoinette wasn’t totally shallow, because she read Jean-Jacques Rousseau tracts with her ladies in waiting. However, little did she know that the words she was quoting echoed changes going on outside her bubble, changes that would eventually lead to her overthrow and the reign of the emerging capitalist class in France.

Dunst lives-up to the starring role very well, but then she has actually gone on record as saying she “really showed (herself) in this movie the most” whilst wallowing in this ridiculously decadent opulence. There’s no dialogue to speak of in this film, just another box of shoes, another glass of champagne, another party. It’s an absolute fantasy. It’s this week’s The Devil Wears Prada. It’s an absolute spectacle, in the very worst sense of the word. Ordinary people are meant to hand over their fivers, drool over the kind of wealth they will never experience this side of another revolution, and get back to work.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Train Insanity On Merseyside!

At a time when the government are supposed to be worried about combating climate chaos, you might have thought they would want to encourage people to use public transport, instead of carbon-burning cars. And yet...

Today's Daily Post contains an article about a report prepared for Transport Secretary Alistair Darling. The subject of this report? How to 'persuade commuters to switch to later trains'.

Apparently, rush hour trains are much too packed, and are going to get even worse as employment increases on Merseyside over the next twenty years.

There are a couple of problems with this analysis. Firstly, there is no guarantee that employment will increase in the next two decades. Business is making a lot of money in around here at the moment, so unemployment is actually quite low by Liverpool standards. Once the Capital of Culture corporate jolly is over, the money is bound to go elsewhere, the bubble will burst and unemployment will go up massively.

Secondly, I often get rush hour trains. Yes, they can be slightly uncomfortable. But everyone gets a seat. That's more than could be said for the buses. If it's that much of a problem, the simple solution would be to attach more carriages. Problem solved.

Anyway, what are the report's proposals for curing the problem it has just invented?

a) increase peak-time fares
b) stop at fewer stations

So working people would lose out, the environment we all depend on would lose out, but who would benefit?

a) car companies
b) oil companies

We can't let this happen. We can't let the government use climate change as an excuse for building nuclear power stations, whilst trying to stop people using public transport.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The History Boys (15)

When I studied Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues for A-level, I found his stories of isolated, introverted northerners fascinating. That may be something to do with the fact that I was an isolated, introverted northerner, but it’s also because I marvelled at the way he would sketch the cold and unfriendly Thatcherised world using the smallest details of the unravelling personalities in his stories.

More recently, Bennett’s play The History Boys has toured three continents and won a shedload of awards. However, though it is shot through with the writer’s trademark wit and intelligence, and though the entire cast is perfect in each of their roles, there seems to be something missing.

At a working class school in Yorkshire, the headmaster (Clive Merrison) is obsessed with getting more students into the posh universities. The History class has passed their A-levels with flying colours, thanks to their charismatic gay teacher (Richard Griffiths), and the fact that – for some apparently random reason – nine intelligent and enthusiastic students have ended-up in the same place at the same time. But the headmaster thinks they are a bit rough and unready, so he hires a young up-and-coming teacher (Stephen Campbell Moore) to shepherd them through Oxbridge qualification. The styles of the two teachers clash wildly, with a world-weary female teacher (Frances de la Tour) playing referee.

So whose side is Bennett on? Pathetically, he seems to think that all sides have good points. Yes, it’s a shame that schools are like sausage factories, but on the other hand, you just have to swallow the nastiness of the modern world. Nothing can be done.

Even more annoyingly, though the soundtrack places the film firmly in the mid 1980s, this is only a minor detail, so it really could be any time in the last thirty years. There are no other cultural or political references of any substance. The school seems to exist in a kind of vacuum, albeit one where an entire class of students from a poor background qualify for Oxbridge and have no hang-ups about homosexuality.

Pressure from business has led successive governments to focus the schooling system on measurable results. Rather than encouraging young people’s natural curiosity, schools teach them to pass exams, memorising facts and techniques that will have little use in whatever career they go on to have. Forcing six year olds to prepare for SAT tests amounts to child abuse. How can anyone with an ounce of humanity not be furious about this?

Alan Bennett’s monologues succeeded because all his characters were so clearly extensions of his own personality. Trapped in their own alienated existence, they perfectly reflected the time in which they were set. However, stepping out of his comfort zone and into the world of human interaction has set new challenges for Bennett – namely to create believable dialogue, and express opinions about the wider society he finds himself in. This proves to be a task too far.

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