Sunday, 29 March 2009

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

This is not a book I would have chosen. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to read (which surely one does for pleasure) ‘The True Story of a Child Soldier’? Okay, Okay; sometimes we do want to read a book in order to be more informed about an issue.

Which is the reason our groupie said she chose this book. She said it deals with a subject about which everyone should be more aware. I don’t know about you, but I have a very fervid imagination. I can imagine only too clearly what atrocities there are going on in those African states. I can imagine how killing fellow beings can numb the senses and dehumanize the perpetrator of crimes. I feel incensed by both government and guerrilla fighters’ treatment of children and women. Appalled that the world lets this all continue.

So, what are we members of this book group for? I for one appreciate that it encourages me to read books I would otherwise not consider. I cannot therefore demur. This groupie is a younger member of the group - bright and socially aware. We bow to her awareness. We read the book about a child soldier in Sierra Leone in spite of the less than inviting subject.

I struggle through it. And so it seems did everyone else including our young groupie. The writing is not good. And it is a harrowing subject. We know that the author is young and not educated in prose but.... And does it seem that perhaps someone else had a hand in it? And then there is a lot of walking in this book. He walked, and he walked, and he walked. And he killed. And he was saved.

Ishmael is obviously an intelligent, articulate child who suffered horribly. But he had (has even now as an adult) the ability to survive. Everything in the story is testament to this. He had (has) a great capacity for love. He wants to belong, to be part of a normal environment, to live and grow. That should give hope.

But it was interesting that all of us had the same response to the book. It’s not often that we are in such agreement. We all hated the subject, we were not impressed with the style and we all found it odd in many ways. BUT. But we were glad that we had read it. We learned things. Things that even over-active imaginations don’t supply.

That children were conscripted to fight by the army as well as the guerrillas. Drugs were (are) widely used to numb the children mentally so they can commit the crimes. But also to keep the children awake with their adrenalin pumping so they are in a state of arousal. They need to be in order that they can run at a moment’s notice and kill at command. And, of course, by keeping them addicted the perpetrators keep them dependent.

We know that child soldiers have little choice but to fight. Many have lost their families and their ability to survive. They are used and abused. But from this story we learn that amongst all this horror, there are some caring individuals (and some aid) that makes a real difference to the rehabilitation of a few. More importantly, we learn that it is possible to rehabilitate child soldiers.

We also learn from our groupie that Sierra Leone was where the first slaves were sent to America – because they knew how to plant tobacco. It is the second poorest country in the world. That diamonds are now the main source of wealth and that the corruption surrounding this wealth accounts for much of the fighting. Those powerful foreign governments have contributed to this power struggle.

And we think about the shocking fact that there are over a quarter of a million children fighting in the world. If all these wars were in some major way associated with oil, we in the West would have waged a war by now to overthrow the leaders that carry out these atrocities and the resulting carnage. And the resulting destruction of societies.

Our groupie was right. This story reminds us above all that we in the ‘civilized’ West do not do enough to change these things: that we still have a Long Way to Go.


Wednesday, 18 March 2009

ENJOY by Alan Bennett

It is always an event seeing a show in the West End. London is a city with such a buzz: it’s cosmopolitan, busy, beautiful (some say ‘like the Curate’s egg’) and varied. I can’t say that theatre land is particularly beautiful but the sheer choice of shows is amazing.

So it was with pleasure (in spite of mixed reviews) that I joined a group of friends to see Alan Bennett’s play, Enjoy. First produced in 1980, the play didn’t do that well, but of course since then Bennett has become a household name, a national treasure.

Set in the 1970’s, the elderly Connie and her husband, Wilf, live in one of the last remaining houses due for demolition in a northern town. Wilf looks forward to the new maisonette they are due to move to, his wife does not. A young woman from the Council arrives to observe them and assess their quality of life. They have an idealised opinion of their daughter (whom hubby idolises) and a son whom Wilf has disowned (but wife adores) and who has not been seen for years.

The play’s first act could be described as ‘gently’ amusing. Pleasant, Bennett quips and northern truisms, but a little lacking in sparkle. Still, the audience had the expectation that this was a play that was going to evolve into something interesting. Then the second act descended into pure farce, the subject matter thoroughly suited to its middle-aged matinee audience. The fact that it was very funny was due to a great extent to the superb acting and relief from the rather flat first act.

Unfortunately, Linda, the daughter, arrives at this stage (no pun intended) – nothing wrong with her acting but it would have been so much better had the character not been seen in the flesh. The audience were quite aware that she was no shorthand typist but a prostitute: the character added nothing to the play, the slapstick/farcical sex scenes were thoroughly embarrassing in their naff-ness, her hint that her father had abused her incongruous and gratuitous. The play would have been improved if she had simply been imagined – and all the more powerful for it.

But Bennett does show what a fantasy life some people live, and to what lengths they will go to fit into their role. Although, as the play neared the end, the tone of the piece became positively morbid. It was as if Bennett couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the play to be. Not the ’stream of consciousness’ monologue of his we have come to love but part monologue(s), part farce, part heavy message. It seems as if he was bent on ticking all the boxes – homosexual son, doting mother, bullying father, abused daughter, hoodwinked aged parents, violent yoof, etc.

What made it, nevertheless, a memorable event was Alison Steadman’s superb acting as Connie. She managed to carry the whole thing. But (to quote a critic)'the poignancy of her character – one of a woman descending into dementia – was camouflaged by poking fun at her affliction'. The grumpy brutal character of Wilf is well acted – but what a part to have to play. The only time the audience have any sympathy for him is when he says how he would have liked to hold his sons hand when he was a boy.

There are twists and turns in the plot – some thoroughly expected, others not – but what started as a kitchen sink drama, progressed to farce and ended up as tragedy – left the audience feeling a bit, well, uncomfortable. And cheated. It was billed as great comedy. We – the audience – were not quite sure what had happened. As the play took a heavy and macabre turn after the farce it left us feeling as if a freight train has just come thundering out of a toytown tunnel.

But, if nothing else, it made me see Bennett, the writer, in a more realistic light. This play was written at the start of his writing career, and to see his later work (such as Talking Heads, The History Boys etc) makes one realise how much some writers can grow and blossom. So I’m taking an optimistic view of the thing – and hope we can all enjoy such improvement.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Make Do And Mend

I don’t think that a lot of people – including the government – have quite got the hang of the 3 R’s yet. We have to re-use and reduce our use of products as well as re-cycle. And re-cycling isn’t just about sending our bottles – glass or plastic – to the bottle banks. The downturn in our economy is bringing back that old-fashioned concept – make do and mend.

If your mother or grand-mother was born before 1950 they would have told you a few basic facts. Don’t throw everything away. Re-use things. In those days it was inconceivable that the tin your shortbread came in would have been chucked. No way. It was used for the next twenty years to hold zips and elbow patches for clothing repairs.

Mend clothes? How do you do that? Surely you just chuck it away and buy something new. Nooooo…even if you’re no seamstress you can take it to the dry cleaners who will arrange for a new zip to be fitted. And those old T-shirts make great cleaning rags.

What about that sensibly sized plastic carton with the lid that the ice-cream came in? Mum would use it for the next ten years to freeze left-overs. Yoghurt pots, throw them away? Not on your Nellie. If Dad didn’t use them to plant his seeds the kids would swipe them to make something clever they saw on Blue Peter.

Jam jars. Of course there’s more to them than home-made marmalade. Jam jars are ace. What can be more useful than all those curtain hooks safely stored in a nice clear see through jar: not to mention screws, nails, washers, buttons and that castor that came off the card table. You have not only re-used the jars, you have done away with the need to buy screws every time you do another little DIY job.

My kids used to laugh at me – Mum, stop hoarding useless rubbish, chuck it away! But at last I’m not considered a sad old skin-flint – the R word means that I’m now ecologically aware! It’s pretty obvious that re-using is much greener than re-cycling. No carbon footprint whatsoever.

And why don’t people just stop buying drinking water in plastic bottles each week. What’s wrong with the tap? Filter it if you must, then re-fill that expensive Evian bottle. The woman next to you in the gym - and your intestines - won’t know the difference.

Then there’s the supermarket plastic bag conundrum: it’s true that in Mum’s day she had her basket or a fold-up nylon bag in her handbag and we should too. But Mum had the odd plastic bag too. Just banning these bags means that instead of them being re-used to line the kitchen bin, shoppers are purchasing other plastic products to do the same job! How much energy is that using: it’s crazy.

The government should have long ago insisted that all such bags were biodegradable (not to mention taxing unnecessary packaging). We could then use the bags in our kitchen bins for our wet food waste. And we could all stop putting clean dry rubbish in big plastic sacks: what’s wrong with putting them straight in the dustbin anyway? No big black plastic bag to sit in the landfill for the next 100 years.

I’m warming to my task now – time for my soap box. How do you reduce, re-use and recycle all in one? Compost, that’s how. Reduce the amount of stuff going to the tip in a nasty big truck. Re-use and recycle your green waste – teabags, coffee grounds, veg peelings et al – in a compost heap. If the garden’s not big enough for a heap or two use that old kitchen bin that broke. When it’s all rotted down it will feed your flower border better than anything you’ve used energy and money to buy from the DIY store. There's satisfaction in the 3 R’s and the culture of make do and mend.