Immigration and Public Services

I’ve just been sent the November newsletter from the Social Market Foundation, which includes a very interesting essay by Conservative moderate John Bercow.

Aside from the cultural benefits of a multiracial society, there is a powerful economic case for immigration. Put simply, immigrants are incoming assets for at least three reasons. First, in a global economy, their labour is vital both to tackle severe skills shortages and to fill long term vacancies. Immigrants are not taking jobs that British workers could fill, but jobs which British workers are unable or unwilling to do. Second, the idea that immigration is an intolerable burden on the taxpayer and the welfare state is baloney. Immigrants give far more than they take. It is estimated that they make a net contribution to the economy of £2.5 billion, account for over 10% of the income tax take, and are disproportionately employed in the public services. Third, as our population shrinks and ages, immigration is vital to staving off a pensions crisis.

In the same publication, SMF Director Ann Rossiter talks about improving public services, and how to pay for them:

… polls show that people are willing to pay more for services they value. However … when it comes to election time, the public tend to vote with their pockets.

One of these days, a politician needs to stand up and call the public a bunch of selfish bastards…

On which front do we fight?

Two articles against Christianity: George Monbiot kicks off a debate by asking whether better off without God, since the stronger the faith, the stronger the function. Meanwhile, Johann Hari launches a timely Global War for the soul of Catholicism, after seeing how the church hinders the sex-education of vulnerable children. I’ve been thinking about these for a couple of weeks ago, until yesterday when I read a couple of letters in The Independent asserting that the problem with all religion is an inherent lack of tolerance.

last night I remembered Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily, at the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires. We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man.

Joseph has a point, but I’m with the relativists. While losing God and your moral anchor might mean a descent into egomania and decadence, this is by no means certain, and (more importantly) it is also not true for most people worldwide! Conversely, the dogma that the soon-to-be Pope advocates must entail a dictatorship, in order for it to work. And the worst kind of dictatorship too – one that is unchanging, static, and thus cannot be reasoned with. Continue reading “On which front do we fight?”

Quake Day

After the Boxing Day Tsunami and Hurricane Katerina, people have been suggesting that we may begin to suffer from Disaster Fatigue, an ailment that is just as dangerous as avian flu, and then some.

DesiPundit have declared today to be Blog Quake Day. Visit the Quake Day page to find links to those organisations that could use a small donation.

Undermining the UN

A little while ago I wrote that a great deal of political discourse is nothing more that a shouting match, as people on both sides of a debate merely present arguments that reinforce their own argument, oblivious to the fact that someone of the opposing view is likely to give the benefit of the doubt to those they arlready support. The best arguments and evidence are those that are so compelling they ring true even with people who are naturally pre-disposed to think the opposite.

I tend to be naturally pro-UN, mainly because we need such an organisation and its the only one we have. I have always thought that the disregard for the UN by the United States does as much to undermine the organisation, as any inaction on the part of the United Nations itself. However, the report of doctored UN reports seems to me a classic piece of almost opinion-changing evidence. It has transpired that, in a report into the death of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, someone in the UN deliberately removed allegations that brother of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was involved in the assasination.

The UN must derive its strength from being obviously impartial. This does not simply mean that it remains impervious to pressure from the USA, but also that it does not aid and abet wrong-doing of the apparent ‘other side’, the Arabic and/or Islamic states in the Middle-East. If we and the UN wish to condemn US unilateralism, we also have to condemn such acts by other states as well. Nothing could be more unilateral than the upper echelons of the Syrian regime committing political assasinations. Never mind the fact that the assasination back-fired, and resulted in a diminished Syrian power-base in Beirut; the UN has sunk into the trough of the moral-low ground, and seriously undermined itself by these actions.

On a side note, I find it fascinating that such a large, global organisation has been undone by the ‘track changes’ tool in what I can only assume is the Microsoft Word programme (although I suppose it could have been the open source alternative, OpenOffice.org). Hasn’t anyone in the UN heard of a PDF? Obviously not. It is another delightful example of technology and the internet exposing the duplicity of the organisations that seek to control the information we receive.

Plant Photography: The birth of a meme

It is rare that one is present at the exact moment when a new cultural meme is born. Okay, so I was not actually present in the studio when Joan Rivers called Darcus Howe a “son of a bitch”, but I was listening to it live. In fact, I was lying in a state of semi-consciousness and River’s shouting aroused me from slumber.

The presenter, Libby Purves, did well to let the argument run its course, and allow Joan Rivers to refute Darcus Howe’s allegation that she was offended by the word “black”. However, she was eventually obliged to give other interviewees space to promote their projects. She turned to photographer Andrea Jones and said:

Andrea, shall we talk about plant photography?

This simply could not have been scripted better. The new subject was the perfect antidote to a heated debate about racism, true ‘flower-power’ in action.

Other people clearly feel the same. Just as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” has now become an easy short-hand for some figment of the imagination, an impossibly acrimonius debate (or more specifically, its forced conclusion) has already been labelled ‘plant photography’. Several examples of this new turn-of-phrase have already appeared in abundance. The blogosphere will certainly entrench it in the coming weeks – I wonder if it will catch on stateside?

document 3: Human Rights Film Festival

Our location is Nice n’ Sleazys on Sauchiehall Street, oppposite the CCA in Glasgow. We have just watched a set of short films at document 3, the International Human Rights Film Festival.

Runaways follows a group of Afghani refugees as they make their way to the border with Tajakistan. Although the subjects are subsisting in a manner that would not have looked odd a thousand years ago, the film is very much of the 21st century. Before the advent of digital technology, a lone film-maker could not have ’embedded’ themselves so unobtrusively into a group of people. A little girl helps her toddler brother over the mud. A young man pushes his veiled mother onto a donkey, then pushes the donkey like a pram out over the plains. These silent vignettes portray the simplicity of the group’s goal – to keep moving, and survive.

Laura Waddington’s Border manages to capture a similar state of mind. Out in the fields around Red Cross Sangatte camp in northern France, we watch the desperate refugees as they try and smuggle themselves through the channel tunnel to England. When they are caught and sent back to the camp, they return to try again the next evening, as if they are clocking-in and clocking-off at a factory.

The clandestine attempts to abscond are captured by a digital camera on its most extreme ‘night setting’. This mimicks a very slow shutter speed on a film camera, and the result is a grainy, sepia image which constantly strobes at only a couple of frames per second. The people we see are mostly in the shadows, which fits with the conception of the refugees as an under-class, a set of ghosts that move among us unseen, submerged. However, after half-an-hour of this, the lack of clarity in the picture becomes slightly tiresome, and I found myself wishing in vain for some daylight shots, or even some proper, infra-red night footage. Accompanied by the sombre narration (the authors of which clearly believing it was far more profound than it actually was), the final ten minutes seemed more like a conceptual art project than a film with substance.

Better the short simplicity of Arrival, a short description of one man’s entry to the UK at Gatwick Airport. Albino Ochero-Okello narrates his own story, and the directors let his words paint the picture of a man so scared that he leaves behind everything in the world that matters. The images serve as a backdrop, and the contrasting sequences of train journeys in England and East Africa enhance the sense of travel and distance. I just wish the same strobe effect we had seen in the previous film had been abandoned. These are documentaries, not music videos.

The visual style of this triumvirate contrasted sharply with the clean presentation of the fourth and final film, which was also the shortest. Unconstrained by the need to be wandering over marsh-land, scrambling through ditches in the dark, or leaning out of a train window, Bon Voyage instead concentrates on a single shift at work, of a single immigrant worker. Each image has been carefully story-boarded, and the extra effort to set-up tracking shots pays off. The result is a perfectly framed montage. Clearly, asking the central character to tell their own story is the way forward with these kinds of films – A woman who cleans toilets at Montparnasse Station wistfully recalls her time in Africa, and wishes she was in a place with status, comfort, and money. As with the other films, she reminds us that many emigrations are not made voluntarily, and that most people who find themselves seeking asylum never expected their fate to be thus.

Hear No, See No, Speak No…

Of all the plays I have had the fortune (and, my God, the misfortune) to watch, none so turned me so upside-down as much as a bizarre, one-off performance I caught, quite by chance, in the latter-half of September 2005. The venue – the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh – had advertised the play as ‘an extraordinary experiment in light and sound’, which immediately alienated me. After another season trapped at the Edinburgh Fringe, yet another experiment in ‘light and sound’ gave the impression of vaccuous installation art-as-theatre that had numbed me for three lonely weeks.

However, a good friend of mine had two complimentary tickets to the event. Being the kind of person who assumes that a complimentary ticket usually means a second-rate performance, I would normally have made a snide remark at the offer. But my friend happened to be deaf, which for some reason made me less inclined to turn down her gesture. I accepted the ticket, and braced myself for not just an evening of boredom, but an evening of boredom with someone who would not be able to hear my whining plea to walk out early.

The Studio 3 space was small, as was the audience. This I had anticipated, because the event was clearly the one performance in every run which is signed for the deaf. Hence the complimentary tickets. Reading the programme before the lights dimmed, I noticed that the play did actually include a deaf character, so I assumed that the play, whatever it was about, would be of particular interest to Joey. I resolved to stay until the end, and try to enjoy it. The programme also included a slip of paper which explained that not only was this the signed performance, but it was also the audio-described performance. I remember thinking that someone in the scheduling department at the Traverse had clearly been pushed for time, and decided to shove all the disabled people in together. The Deaf, the Blind, and me. Great.

The set was sparse and disorientating. The audience, all fifteen of us, stood in a semi-circle along one side of the room, while the actors, all five of them, came and went from behind two or three sheets of gauze. Each actor played just one character, with none appearing to have more lines than the others. Dressed in white shirts and blouses, with neutral black trousers, they lacked a certain distinction of character, and sometimes it was difficult to remember who was who… especially remarkable since one of the actors was black. Another character, a charismatic artist named ‘T’, was revealed to be blind only in the second scene, the first time in the play that he had cause to actually get up out of his chair. This twist was well timed, coming as it did after a particually verbose monologue from the same character that threatened to send the whole play into an arid exposition on the nature of perception.

The plot, confusing at first, fell into a decent rhythmn when it was finally allowed to gather pace, towards the end of the first half hour. The pain of some characters unrequited love becoming most apparent in those scenes where other characters were oblivious. In the interactions between the pale young girl and the older man, most poignant were those scenes of contrived social interaction, where what was being said and what was meant were two very different things. The slightly cliched plot device of having a sixth character created entirely ‘off-stage’ slightly punctured the overall coherence of the story in my opinion. However, the dark reason for the absence of this friend, the man at cause of all the heart-ache, was only hinted at, leaving the audience guessing and adding a layer of uncertainty to the piece.

At just over an hour, the story was wrapped up with a rather weak final line (“I thought you knew each other?”) which sounded incomplete to me. The absence of the sixth character was never quite explained, but the couple in love achieved some kind of closure, if not happiness. The philosophising of the first section never returned and I applauded with enthusiasm, more at the discernible talent of the actors in creating believable characters, rather than because any profound statement of human nature had been achieved. We retired to the bar.

Sitting awkwardly among the punters, the conversation meandered onto other subjects – the play, I considered, not being controversial enough to provoke debate. However, as I was returning from the counter with another whiskey and soda, I had to avoid one of the actors from the play, the one who had played the middle aged man, who was on his way home. I smiled as I squeezed passed. Back at the table, Joey nodded towards him, and said something so odd, I was sure I had misheard.

“I wonder what happened to the little boy we never saw?”

She was talking about the play again, but clearly this was a mistake. The the absent character was definitely a man, an adult, but Joey had called him a “little boy”.

“In the play? You mean, ‘the man we never saw’?” I corrected.

“No, the little boy. The person who they all talked about but who wasn’t on stage.”

“That was a man. An adult.”

Joey looked puzzled, and slightly offended, as if I was making fun of her. She could see from my face that I wasn’t joking. To resolve the matter, she turned around and tapped a bald, bearded man on the shoulder. He was also deaf and she apparently knew him. Either that, or she at least knew he was deaf. They signed a quick exchange, before Joey turned back to me. “It was definitely a little boy.” she said. They both stared at me, waiting for a response.

And so the short, yet fantastic detective story began. At first, it began with a simple disagreement over the facts of the story, but it soon became clear that the woman signing the translations for the deaf audience members had been referring to the “boy” off-stage, while those of us with proper ears had been lead to believe that person was a man. I was tempted to write it off as a mistake, until the man with the beard signed something at me. Joey translated.

“He says, ‘if it was a man’ then how come they were so worried he had left them?’”

It was if they had seen a different play. The key elements were there, of course. A tale of unfulfilled love, the same essential character. But the story Joey and the Beard had percieved had taken on a profoundly different tone. Rather than worrying about what sinister motivation had removed the sixth character from the scene (A prison sentence, I had half-conjectured), they had been concerned for the well-being of a missing child. There was even, Joey said, the strong possibility he had been murdered. I was baffled that something so fundamental to the story and the characters could have been missed, or altered. I excused myself and made for the toilets.

Splashing water on my face, I became aware of someone behind me. Looking into the mirror above the sink, I noticed a man in dark glasses stagger out of the cubicle. His walking stick betrayed him as blind, and I offered to get the door for him.

It occurred to me that I needed an ally in my argument with Joey. “Did you just see that play in there?” I demanded.

He chuckled at my insensitivity, and nodded. “They gave us some ear pieces, with a narrator telling us the actions. Fucking weird. Can you help me back to my table?”

I sat him down on the table next to ours, where Joey remained seated with the Beard who had joined her. They were furiously signing in utter slience, while the bar chattered around them. I waved at her, and they stopped signing. “This guy saw the performance too.” I mouthed the words slowly. They looked at him, as if waiting for some kind of revelation.

“Odd bit of fun, wasn’t it?” He was from Essex. “Don’t know why those two didn’t just knob each other and get it over with, but still.”

“I should have thought it was obvious, the strain they were under.”

He looked at me (or rather, he turned his head in my general direction, the eyeline was slighty off, but I couldn’t mention it). “You what?”

The riddle had become a conundrum. The blind man had been in the studio with us, but the audio description had given him yet another angle on the play. The action he described was more frantic, more angry, and more farcical than what the rest of us had witnessed. He had come away from a performance that was satire. It had made him smirk.

It was obvious that the director and the actors had been a part of this triplicity. They had been putting extra information and false descriptions into the audio feed, and the translator performing the sign translations had blatantly been mistranslating the story. It was irritating that I had fallen for such a plot. I was particularly annoyed that I hadn’t managed to spot the different reactions on the faces of the other audience members. Why had I not seen the blind man smile, or Joey gasp, at moments when I was cringing? The company had been playing with us, and I didn’t like it.

“Well this is really not on!” I said eventually. “They’ve been telling you the wrong story. They shouldn’t play with people’s disabilities like that. Its mean.”

Joey knocked on the table. “But we saw the right story, not you. We didn’t need a translation for Miranda’s part, did we?” Miranda was the deaf character that Joey had been interested to see. Half the time, the actress spoke normally, but signed at the same time. In a few scenes she simply signed to another character, apparently her brother, without speaking. He always answered her properly, but her words were spoken by the interpreter, the woman at the side of the studio who usually translated the rest of the play back into signs. I could not even remember what the translator looked like, but it was beginning to seem as if she had some diabolical hold over the entire performance. Not only had she deceived the deaf people, she had deceived me too. Joey had a point.

I rescued myself. “Well, they definitely fooled you,” I said, turning back to the blind man.

“I suppose so. It took me a little while to recognise that one of the characters was deaf! They never told us that, and I only worked it out when I heard the bodies moving in the one place, and the voice for that Miranda girl coming from off stage.” He chuckled and felt on the table for the stick.

I didn’t say anything then, but I knew he was wrong, and that I was wrong too. This man had heard body movements from the other side of the room, movements I had not noticed because I was too engrossed in my own, critics eye-view. Perhaps scenes that I assumed were heavy and brutal had an underlying spring in their step that only a blind man could hear. Perhaps the key moments in the scene were not the confrontations that distracted me, but a slient resolute expression that only the deaf would see. It was not that the performance had been audio described, or sign interpreted. It had been vocally and visually translated for me.

The show had a run of only three nights. I attended the third. The magazine I wrote for had huge lead times, and in any case was struggling to break out of the niche market it had dropped into, so I never had a chance to review it. It was ignored by the tabolids, of course, but a couple of the broadsheets summarised it in a couple of paragraphs, giving it three stars and using words like “standard” and “interesting”. Someone told me that Mark Lawson on the radio had called it “pedestrian,” but I didn’t hear the programme so it might have been something else.

There has not, to my knowledge, been a revival. I am left with a perennial weed in my stomach, the feeling you have when you suddenly realise you have seen something fantastic, but did not realise at the time. You look back, but it’s gone.

All that remains is the memory, bliss and agony, of the moment we finally stood up, put on our jackets, and went to leave the bar. I suddenly remembered the innoccuous final line of the play: “I thought you knew each other?” I imagined that line, in the light of the master plan we had revealed. I considered the alternatives witnessed by Joey, the Beard and the blind man, and suddenly the various possibilities of the story were open to me. Far from being weak, that final line had brought those parallel stories together. With all the clues in place, that line revealed exactly why the sixth character was missing. Too late.

I winced for breath as we emerged into the breeze on Lothian Road. The Deaf, the Blind, and me, struck dumb.

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?

Inaug-roll

I’ve been waiting for a little while before adding anyone to the blogroll. This is partially because I’ve been fretting over whether or not to call it a ‘blogroll’ or whether to opt for something a more conservative description. It is also because I wanted to write a short yet coherent justification of each entry, and why they should be so honoured on www.robertsharp.co.uk.

Today I decided I should get my head out of my arse on both counts and simply get on with it.

I find myself leaving comments frequently on Pickled Politics, and I think they have hit just the right tone: balanced in places, yet with a rightly indignant fucking attitude problem in others…

Clive Davis has to be one of the most well read people on the planet. Ultimately, I disagree with him politically, but the articles he highlights always deserve a consideration, which I think will make my opinions better. His thoughts on culture, and especially the blogosphere, are particularly enlightening.

I came to Clive Davis via Jenks at the thames, who claims it was Clive who persuaded him to start a blog. I could confess to a vague nepotism with this one, as Jenks and I apparently share a couple of genes somewhere along the line… but I do enjoy his vignettes on bringing up three kids. Let’s hope this addition to the blogroll squeezes a few more out of him, eh? (edit: That would be blog posts, not kids…)

You could accuse me of cronyism when I include … by ste curran on the roll, since I am pre-aquainted with him too. But even if we had never met, I would still delight in Ste’s writing. I just would not be able to imagine the cheeky chancer beavering away at his keyboard, wiping a tear of neat emotion away from his RedEye. If they can behave themselves, the Triforce may get an entry one of these days too.

During the various happenings in Edinburgh this summer, I saw both George Galloway and George Monbiot speak on the same day. Galloway’s rhetoric has always entertained me, but there is nowhere near as much substance as Monbiot. If anyone should be ‘Gorgeous George’ its the latter, not the former.

There’s a couple more sites I have been reading recently, which I would like to add… but these five will do for now. No need to open all the Christmas presents at once.

Ghosts in the iPod, Dæmons in Google

Everyone knows there are ghosts in the iPod. These are the beings that live deep within the algorithms of the randomise feature. They tap into your thoughts, and play a song for you. The iPod ghosts, they say, will choose the track that suits what you are thinking. The ghosts will look at your reflection in the train window, and the view beyond, and pick a song that fits your mood.

The iPod ghosts do not exist to simply provide a fitting cinematic sound-scape to our lives. They want to talk to us, and tell us stories. They show us connections we have not seen before. The non-believers claim that iPod ghosts are just the bizarre connections you make in your own head, links that give the impression of infeasible coincidence. But any connection you make will be a product of your language, the things you have done, the places you have been, the books you have read. These connections, the iPod ghosts, are our culture, the ramblings of our ancestors trying to tell us something they have already forgotten.

Contrast the iPod ghosts with the Google AdSense dæmons. These are the malevolent creatures that are trapped in a JavaScript world, somewhere between your computer screen and Google Inc’s servers. The dæmons strike when you are at your most vulnerable. They look for important pages, ones that mean something to the author. A cry for help, a gesture of genuine solidarity, a long pondered social comment. The daemons find these pages, and sabotage them with a crass, inappropriate and ill-timed mini-advert.

Trapped in their bland, neutral boxes, the AdSense dæmons are the enemy of sincerity. They take those same thoughts that are incubated by the iPod ghosts, and taint them with a blind, amoral commercialism. Perhaps the connections they make are also our culture, the same ancestors laughing hysterically at what we have become.

Update

Andrew Sullivan has spotted a couple of AdSense daemons plaguing Mickey Kaus’ blog at Slate.

Chicken Yoghurt has sharp eyes, and has spotted an odd juxtaposition of story and advert. John Reid, Knifethrower.