Friday, July 20, 2007

Up with the Posties!

Here's the new Liverpool Indymedia feature, with thanks to Birmingham IMC, who tribute to:

Following failed talks with Royal Mail management, postal workers on Merseyside and across the country are taking industrial action against Royal Mail's cost-cutting plans, which are based on the European Union Postal Services Directive. A campaign of walkouts has been planned by the Communication Workers Union leadership, spread over various sites at different times. Liverpool will be hosting a regional march and rally in support of the posties this Saturday, 21st July.

The struggle continues

Two weeks ago, up to 130,000 postal workers took part in a 24-hour strike - the first in 11 years - to stop the Royal Mail's cost-cutting plans, which the Communication Workers Union (CWU) said would only mean cuts in members' pay and pensions, job cuts and more post office closures.

However, according to the CWU, the Royal Mail management were not really interested in meaningful talks on Wednesday, June 11th, and merely reiterated their previous 'offer' and refused point-blank to negotiate. In fact, chairman Allan Leighton did not even turn up for the meeting and simply joined via a telephone link. CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes commented: "We are consistently trying to negotiate with Royal Mail but, to be blunt, they have no interest. They refuse to take the dispute seriously – to the extent that Allan Leighton can only spare 45 minutes from his other commitments for a virtual meeting by conference call. The public will see through his half-hearted approach to stop disruption to the mails services."

The CWU said support for the initial strike among postal workers was "huge". A CWU press release said "No Royal Mail services operated as mail came to a standstill with close to total support for the CWU strike across the UK. Postal workers in every area supported the strike in overwhelming numbers. This support was at a level of 99% in big cities and all the largest Royal Mail workplaces and over 90% in all other areas of the country."

Once again, the Royal Mail management accused the CWU of "blocking modernisation" and "hurting the business and its customers with repeated strikes," portraying them as the ones causing this dispute. Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton said: "Yet again, the union has refused to grasp or understand the harsh commercial reality of the market in which Royal Mail now operates and the consequences for all of us if we don't modernise - and do it quickly. Their decision to call another strike changes nothing and achieves nothing other than to damage the business and our customers and drive more of them towards the internet or to rival operators." Further, Royal Mail claimed that, "as ever, it is willing to meet the union at any time," never mind what had happened the day before.

Back in 2006, Royal Mail and the CWU had agreed that they would work together to tackle the impact of competition in the mail market, use government investment to introduce automation, improve efficiency, introduce innovation products and raise the value and status of postal workers' jobs. Royal Mail, however, ditched the agreement, refused to negotiate a pay resettlement and insisted on unilateral imposition of its cost-cutting business plan with mass job losses and cuts to workers' pay and pensions. Furthermore, the management has been deliberately misleading the public by claiming that the CWU want a 27% pay rise. The CWU insist they have never demanded a 27% pay rise. Royal Mail's offer of 2.5% increase in pay is, in reality, a wage cut as it falls below inflation rates.

Strike profiteers

According to the BBC, one of Royal Mail's biggest rivals, DX, had offered to help Royal Mail make its urgent deliveries over the period of the strike. The company told the BBC it expected to gain about £10m of business as a result of the strike action. DX describes itself as "the leading alternative to Royal Mail for next day business mail services, delivering over 1 million letters and packets every working day throughout the UK and Ireland." All this, of course, was not mentioned by Royal Mail when they reassured their customers that they had "well-developed contingency plans".

Since the Postal Services Act 2000 was introduced, over 1,000 post offices around the country have been closed down, paving the way for private companies to take over. There are further plans to close some 70 post offices in the near future and relocate the services into WH Smith stores. Since Royal Mail lost its monopoly status on post deliveries at the beginning of 2006, 17 private operators have entered the UK mail market, particularly in the more profitable business post sector. According to Royal Mail itself, the company has already 'lost' about 40% of its bulk mail business to private competitors, including recently a £8m contract with Amazon. Yet, operators such as TNT and DHL only handle the bulk transit between major customers and the main sorting offices, which is the easy bit, while Royal Mail is still expected to make the individual deliveries, but without the full amount of the postage.

But what can YOU do?

If you're not a postal worker yourself, you might feel like there's nothing you can do. But there are many ways you can spread solidarity with the posties. Firstly, if you hear someone in your workplace or neighbourhood complaining about the inconvenience caused by the strike, put the posties' side of the story, and tell them to expect a much worse service if the strike is defeated. Secondly, you can pass on your best wishes to posties in person (when there's knock...ring...letters through your door), or by writing messages on any letters and parcels you may send. Finally, why not come along to the rally this Saturday, 21st July, starting from Myrtle Parade at 12.30?

Liverpool Indymedia:
Postal Workers To Rally In Liverpool |

BBC News:
Postal workers back strike action |

Daily Post:
Post strike action to be escalated

Nerve magazine:
‘New Kensington No Post Office’

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Peter Blake: A Retrospective

Tate Liverpool (29th June - 23rd September 2007)
£5 (£4 concessions)

It was Oscar Wilde who said 'A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.' If we judge Peter Blake by that standard, it's doubtful he is an artist at all, rather than just a highly skilled copyist. Throughout his career he has worn many different badges, but never made one of his own.

Blake got to art school on the strength of a portrait of his sister. There he learned still lifes and 'what was called composition', which he describes as being a 'prescribed Victorian way of working'. It was probably during this period that Blake put the most of himself into his work, literally in many cases (see left).

For about fifteen years in the 1950s and 60s, Blake rode the crest of the pop art wave, as a kind of British Andy Warhol. His work is drenched in the mass marketed youth culture of the time. However, unlike with Warhol, there is no sense of social commentary in Blake's pop art. Instead, pin-ups are presented 'as is', giving the impression that the painter didn't apply any kind of filter. Popular culture in, popular culture out.

The defining moment in Blake's career came in 1967, when he landed the job of designing a cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, the collage quickly became one of the most iconic images in rock history. From that moment, he was the man who did that cover.

At the end of that decade, with Vietnam protests, civil rights movements and student rebellions convulsing the western world, Blake retreated into himself. Suddenly modern wasn't interesting anymore, so he set off in search of the countryside and the simple life. He founded a group called the Brotherhood of Ruralists, and tried to make 'a certain kind of English painting', with references to a bygone upper class culture. His technique was self-consciously 'traditional', and there was more than a tip of the hat to the pre-Raphaelites.

As Thatcher and Reagan began their reigns of terror in the UK and US, Blake moved on to painting scenes of beach parties in Los Angeles thrown by his rich friends. No doubt many of them are now gazed at nostalgically by those who were there. In 1994, he became Artist in Residence at the National Gallery in London. Here again, he deliberately imitated the style of others, this time Pietro Longhi and Francisco Zurbarán, which he mixed with knowing references to yet more famous painters. This culminated in 'The Marcel Duchamp World Tour', where the long dead Dadaist got to meet the Spice Girls and Elvis. That's Marcel Duchamp the true innovator, reduced to jaded replica.

In his interview with Nerve last year, Blake expressed no sympathy for the many local artists struggling to make ends meet, despite the Capital of Culture money rolling into the city:
'I don’t think artists should be sponsored. You should not rely on grants. You either make a success of your art or you don’t.'
That's an easy thing for him to say. After all, he made his name by designing that sleeve art, itself nothing more than a large-scale cut and paste affair. The success of the songs on the album therefore contributed more to his bank balance than his own skill as a creator.

Perhaps even more significantly, an artist who wants to make a living from selling their work must accommodate themselves to the tastes of those rich enough to buy it. For better or worse, this is something that Peter Blake has continuously done over the last half century.

Blake's next major commission is for the Capital of Culture.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Curated by Rémi Faucheux
Open Eye, Wood Street (15th June - 1st August 2007, Tue-Sat 10.30am-5.30pm)

Going to a clinic isn't creepy. It may be a lot of other things - worrying, troubling, nerve-wracking - but it isn't sinister in any way. Patients aren't concerned about anything other than their particular medical condition. So why would anyone pretend any different? Ask the dark ambient soundtrack.

Open Eye's latest pompous and po-faced offering is two rooms of slideshows, each showing pictures related to the 'medical universe'.

In room one, twelve projects by different artists are looped. Almost all of these are totally banal shots, which deserve no further comment. Two photographers rose above the ordinary, however. Olivier Amsella's work shows explicit images from operations, with bits of bodies seeming like extensions of huge, imposing machines. Of course, there's nothing creepy about them, they are being used to make the person healthy, but it did remind me of Richard Dawkins' observation that our bodies are nothing more than 'survival machines' for our genes. Which is a bit unsettling, actually.

Ville Lenkkeri's work is also slightly jarring, with it's disembodied depictions of bits and pieces, models of foetuses, empty containers. Here the weirdness is caused by a lack of context. It's a simple trick but quite a successful one.

The second room is devoted to photos discovered in medical journals, manuals and the like. I have literally never been less excited in my life, and it was as if the selection panel had scoured the blandest places for the the least remarkable images imaginable. And yet that dark ambient soundtrack insisted I should be somehow fearful.

Whenever I go to the Open Eye, it is empty. There is quite an obvious reason for this, almost all their exhibitions show photos of things which people would be bored by if they saw them in their normal environment. Yet they keep getting funding from the arts establishment. It's as if those who hold the purse strings want to keep most people feeling detached and excluded.

Now that really would be sinister.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Key To My Cell

Des Warren
Living History Library, paperback, £10

You may not know the name Des Warren, but his trial and imprisonment in the early 1970s arguably left the way clear for Margaret Thatcher's attacks on trade unions and the working class. His autobiography should therefore be near the top of the reading list for anyone who wants to understand that time.

Warren was arrested alongside twenty-three other building workers, whose 'flying picket' had been trying to persuade Shrewsbury builders to join a nationwide strike. Ted Heath's Conservative government was on the back foot at the time, following action by mine workers in particular, and business leaders were fearful of militancy spreading across all industries.

Though Warren was eventually imprisoned for 'conspiracy to intimidate', his book describes in great detail 'the real conspiracy' to put him behind bars, which would serve as a deterrent to other workers hoping to improve their conditions. The author was clear that he didn't take his sentence personally, because '
The Tory Government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade union movement'. However, he also insisted that he was abandoned by union leaders, who in practice only led 'the front of the queue when honours are dished out.'

The chapters that describe Warren's prison life are fascinating in of themselves, painting a vivid picture of the power struggles and hierarchies that exist inside. Because he regarded himself as a 'political prisoner', Warren frequently caused trouble for the 'screws', and always stood up for his fellow inmates when they were being particularly victimised. When he told a prison doctor about some sleeping problems, he was prescribed a chemical cocktail known as the 'liquid cosh', which severely curtailed his resistance, and caused the Parkinson's disease which would kill him three decades later.

Not surprisingly, The Key To My Cell is full of anger. But Warren's book is in many ways a gift to the generations of activists who would come after him, because there's also sharp analysis of the forces at work in the case. It's also very readable, despite the dozens of organisations and their initials which accompany trade union and party politics.

The campaign to get justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets was relaunched in August last year, and has the passionate support of Ricky Tomlinson, who stood trial alongside Des Warren and wrote a forward for this book. Building workers still face disgusting pay and conditions, but they're by no means alone in that. The story of Des Warren has lessons for anyone struggling against the rich and powerful.

This book can be ordered from News From Nowhere, Liverpool’s radical & community bookshop.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

My Name Is Rachel Corrie

Edited by Alan Rickman and Kathy Viner
Unity Theatre (3rd July 2007)

Rachel Corrie was a 23-year-old student from Washington state, who met her death in the Gaza Strip, crushed by an Israeli Defence Force Caterpillar D9 armoured bulldozer as she tried to stop it demolishing the home of a Palestinian pharmacist. This play is her story.

My Name Is Rachel Corrie had a three day run at the Unity in February, and the theatre felt confident enough to bring it back just five months later, as part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival. They were well rewarded, as there was another full house.

This collaboration between film actor Alan Rickman and journalist Kathy Viner has attracted acclaim and condemnation worldwide since it first opened two years ago at London's Royal Court. Like anything that throws a light on events in Palestine, it has been labelled anti-Semitic by Jewish groups and individuals who have financial or personal investments in the state of Israel. They are right to be fearful, because this is a powerful production which - in its strongest moments - goes beyond the headlines to the hellish daily lives of almost all Palestinians.

This one woman play takes its script from Corrie's diary entries and emails, as selected by Rickman and Viner. It opens in Rachel's apartment in Olympia, Washington, which looks messily unremarkable. As an adolescent girl, she tells her journal about her dreams of being an artist and travelling. So far, so average.

Like many people of her generation, it was the sense of urgency following 9/11 which radicalised Rachel Corrie. As Bush began his so-called 'war on terror', she found herself outraged and determined. “We can choose which side of history we want to be on now," she explains, "and how willing we are to fight. We are not outside.”

With no real resistance on the streets of Washington, Corrie travelled to Palestine, and immersed herself in the struggle for survival there. At the time, the Israeli government was starting work on its 'security wall', which critics claim is part of a deliberate attempt to strangle the Palestinian economy, and legitimise another land grab. With the backing of the United States, and using the distraction of the impending Iraq, the Sharon government began attacking volunteers with the International Solidarity Movement who were non-violently protesting against the campaign of demolition. One of those was British student Tom Hurndall, and another was Rachel Corrie.

The second and final scene takes places against this background, during the last weeks of Rachel's life. Torn between fear and courage as the gunshots ring out around her, she comes across as a vulnerable human being, who wanted to help the people around her, but felt guilty about the anguish she was causing her parents. Many passages are taken up with her wondering whether she could or should leave for the relative safety of home. But in the end she could not, and paid with her life.

Eyewitness Tom Dale narrates Corrie's death. The driver of the bulldozer could see her clearly, but “you see one, then both of her feet disappear.”

The second half of the play is intensely moving, and a historical document of one person's tragically short existence. Questions about the nature of middle east politics - and the role that westerners can play in bringing about peace - are not addressed. But they are suggested. And that is a start.

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