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Archive for April, 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

And so it came to pass that on this day of days the nation wept tears of grateful joy as a feudal anachronism married a bland clothes horse PR opportunity for his dysfunctional family – Kate was heard whispering to William “You had me at ‘join me in my life of stolen wealth, unearned privilege and misplaced respect'”. Jerusalem blared out and William Blake spun in his grave, glad only of the fact that were he alive today he would probably have been arrested by the new police Pre-Crime division, although they could always disinter him…

Well, you get the idea. The monarchy should be abolished and the police increasingly seem to be the paramilitary wing of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. We’re told to celebrate the ridiculously expensive (for us) wedding of a pair of strangers and that this is a proud day day to be British. I didn’t actually watch the thing, am grateful as ever to Twitter for keeping me abreast of happenings.

I’m always puzzled at the notion of being proud of the patch of earth where one arbitrarily dropped out, and it seems to me that the people who proclaim their patriotism the loudest are the ones who are unhappiest with where they live, constantly moaning about the state of the country, ‘it’s going to the dogs’ and other such nonsense. I like it here, wouldn’t live anywhere else, and it irks me that idiots will disguise their prejudices behind the banner of patriotism.

The welfare state is something to truly be proud of, and yet the patriots of the Tory party are aiming to rip it to shreds – for them ‘patriotism’ comes a distant second to the needs of the market and the world of finance. Protest against this and the dominant discourse put forth by the government, aided by the mainstream media, will present you almost as a traitor.

Speaking of discourse and media narrative, yesterday I was on a rare trip out and decided to treat myself to sausage and chips in the pleasant cafe we have in Enfield. As I sat down I grabbed a paper from one of the empty tables. Bad move. It was the Express. A headline joyfully declared that nearly 900,000 people had been taken off sickness benefits. The language used in the article stopped short of accusing them of treachery, but only just. Once again the claimant of benefits was portrayed as being mendacious, lazy and unworthy. I would link to the piece but I do not want the Express website to get any more hits than it already does, and I can’t risk looking at the comments. The reality of the situation has been commented on far more articulately than I could by Sue Marsh on her excellent blog .

The emphasis of this article, and no doubt similarly across the right wing press, may have been on those who claim sickness benefits, but it’s part of a continuing narrative I have previously mentioned, one wherein anyone who claims anything from the state is a burden. On the housing list, why can’t you buy your own house? Claiming JSA, get a job! On the sick, pull your socks up and stop expecting us to pay for you. I have no children and no intention of having any – perhaps I should ask people with children why I should pay for their education and health care? I won’t, though, as I’m really not that much of an idiot. I also believe in a society where we all look out for each other rather than kvetch about what others may or may not be getting – that would be something to be proud of.

The ongoing stigmatization has been ramped up significantly since the coalition (ie; Tories) came to power a year ago with government departments and ministers releasing details of ‘misuse’ of public funds at regular intervals. These reports are always skewed and open to challenge if some proper analysis is carried out but the mainstream media will baldly repeat what they’re told and the damage is done. This is true even of the BBC, an organisation that we can in the main justly be proud of. We are told that the BBC is comprised of left wing, woolly liberals seeking to undermine the establishment – take a proper look at the way they blandly repeat government untruths; in fact, take a look at the slavishly adoring way in which they’ve covered the royal wedding.

The reason I was out yesterday was to make my first claim for benefits in 17 years. It’s a matter of pride to me that in my life I have only claimed about two months worth of benefits and have been self sufficient, and I believe this to be the case for most people. We do not want to have to ‘rely’ on the state for assistance, but when we need some it’s good to have somewhere to turn to.

After taking voluntary redundancy in order to save my fragile mental health after two years of victimisation by my former employers, I need to sign on in order to at least claim my NI stamps. So off I trotted to the local job centre to complete the application I started online. I was seen by a very pleasant adviser who double checked everything and then came the question concerning my fitness for work. I really didn’t know what to say – work for me is part of my ongoing treatment, a distraction from the dark places my chronic depression takes me to. And yet the past two years have damaged my health to such an extent that it took all of my strength to just sit and wait to be seen in the job centre. I want to work, but need to be certain that I am able to. I don’t want to ‘mess up’ again.

In the end we decided that I would be put down for part time work pending me consulting with my doctor. Will this lead to me having to claim sickness benefit? I really don’t know as yet, I haven’t functioned ‘normally’ in nearly two years as a result of my former employers’ dereliction of their duty of care. I will try my best, though, and it would help if the already present sense of ‘guilt’ at claiming benefits isn’t exacerbated by the attacks on claimants by this government. I am not a scrounger or a slacker, and neither are the vast majority of those who claim. I want to be proud of myself and proud of the society I live in; at the moment it’s proving hard to be either.

Anyway, to finish off, let’s all celebrate the happy union and the monarchy with a lovely song.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

April 24, 2011 18 comments

A Saturday night/Sunday morning in August 2003, and on the stage of the Debating Hall of Edinburgh Uni’s Teviot building in Edinburgh stands a hirsute young man fielding questions from the audience.
“What was it like working with Peter Kay?” asks someone.
“That man”, replies the hirsute young man, pushing his glasses up his nose, “is a…”

I first saw Daniel Kitson one August Saturday night/Sunday morning in 2002 at the infamous Late and Live show put on by the Gilded Balloon at silly o’clock throughout each Edinburgh Fringe. His stand up show Something had been receiving rave reviews to the extent that by the time we arrived for the final week it was sold out. And he won that year’s Perrier award. So, I was pleased to see that the MC of the last Late and Live of the Fringe was to be Kitson – other acts on the bill included Rich Hall, Adam Hills and Ricky Grover, so an ace time was guaranteed. Oh, and there was Jimmy Carr. Carr aside, an ace time was indeed had which involved, variously, Rich Hall in KKK garb, Ricky Grover rather too enthusiastically pretend kicking a prone figure on stage during the end of show/festival free for all, and Kitson and Hills stripped to the waist fighting each other with Hills’ old false legs. In the middle of the expected chaos, Kitson sparkled with his devastating wit, comedy badinage, rude words and constant reminders to his peers that it was he who had won the Perrier. This was a comedian I wanted to see much more of before he got too big and ubiquitous…

To be absolutely honest I first saw Daniel Kitson in January 2000 as the St John’s Ambulance volunteer featured in the Arena episode of That Peter Kay Thing. He went on to appear in both series of Phoenix Nights as Spencer, most prominently as one of the bar staff in the second series shown in 2002 – with this TV exposure alongside one of comedy’s rising stars, and his award winning run at the Fringe, the world would be hearing a lot more of Daniel Kitson, right?

The calendar pages riffle past and it is now August 2003. I am in Edinburgh again and waiting to see Daniel Kitson having wisely decided to include him among the select group of shows I book before heading up north to overindulge in comedy heroin. In the intervening year I had taken the opportunity to see Something at the Soho Theatre and, yes, it was the best show at the Fringe that year. This isn’t a stand up show, though, and he’s not at The Pleasance, one of the then ‘Big Three’ venues (the other two being the Gilded Balloon and Assembly Rooms) at the Fringe, where he had been the previous two years. Kitson is appearing at The Pod, a new venue consisting of a tent/marquee thing set in a square opposite the Traverse theatre on Lothian Road. He is performing a story telling show called A Made Up Story and it is wonderful. Using video, music, and most importantly his words, Kitson took us into the lives of ‘ordinary people’ living ‘ordinary lives’, past the superficial and into the glorious banality that most of us experience, a theme that flows through all of his work. I was well and truly hooked. As my opening paragraph suggests, I also saw him at Late and Live again that year, taking along three of my friends for conversion. Kitson was MC again, and his stand up brilliance shone through, although it was nearly overshadowed when US comic and filmmaker Paul Provenza invited a persistent heckler up on stage, stripped him, and violated him with a mic stand. Kitson had previously attempted to quell the loquacious bugger(ee) by instructing the audience to self regulate – this involved us shouting ‘C***’ in unison whenever he (the heckler) spoke up. Good old Late and Live!

When I predicted the year before that a comedian from the Late and Live line up would break out and become a household name, I had been right. But it wasn’t Daniel Kitson. It was the blandly ‘outrageous’ Jimmy Carr who had made inroads into the nation’s consciousness, not the stuttering, hairy, bespectacled, self confessed looking like a cross between ‘an Open University professor and a paedophile’ purveyor of whimsy and honest simplicity. Why was this? Comedian Janey Godley has commented that the mainstream media are still to all intents and purposes happiest when dealing with men in suits and Carr certainly fits that demographic – nondescript, shirt and suit, ‘ironic’ use of stereotypes that we can all laugh at in a knowing manner, trite observations about everyday life – Carr ticks all the boxes. And just look at who got a primetime show on BBC1 last year: John Bishop – nondescript, shirt and suit etc. – the year I first saw Bishop at the Fringe there was also the likes of Josie Long, Alex Horne, David O’Doherty, but the straightforward bloke in the suit is the one that gets to the top. The debate on television commissioners and their blinkered view of the comedy scene is a lengthy one and I won’t be entering into it any further here as it would take up too much space, and, anyway, Kitson wouldn’t have taken a commission if offered one, let alone appear on panel shows.

After his Edinburgh triumph in 2002 Kitson chose to evade what Stewart Lee in his excellent book How I Escaped My Certain Fate describes as the “Death Star Light Ent tractor beam of the Perrier”. The doors that would have opened to him were ignored, he ditched his management, and he began to concentrate on becoming self sufficient. At the Fringe, Kitson no longer played the venues of the Big Three (now four with the Underbelly) but instead chose to locate himself at the only purpose built comedy venue at the festival, the wonderful, sweatily compact Stand club. That was for his stand up, though – Kitson also started writing more story telling pieces and for these he chose the Traverse theatre, across the road from the venue for his first theatrical piece, A Made Up Story.

Now that he was his own manager Kitson could book the venues he wanted, when he wanted – he famously won’t perform his stand up shows on Friday or Saturday nights due to the type of punter that might stumble in, although he still does spots at more ‘with it’ clubs such as Live at the Chapel or the Hampstead Comedy Club. Eschewing publicity, Kitson instead promotes his work via his mailing list having built up what Stewart Lee again describes as “the cleverest and coolest audience in comedy” (I have to admit to a smug flush of pride when I read those words, I’m not sure if that was Lee’s intent). Turning back to Lee, he also tells in How I… of the time the sublime poet/comedian John Hegley told him that 3000 dedicated fans paying a tenner a year is all you need to make a start, and Kitson appears to be working on this principle, except on a larger scale; he has admitted to making a very comfortable living, despite the self chosen lack of TV work and its side benefits. He does it so well that Lee asked him to be his manager, something Kitson declined.

The other side of this self sufficiency is that Kitson can, and does, try and work things to the benefit of his fans in terms of ticket prices. A ticket at the Fringe to see a top circuit comedian at one of the Big Four can cost £15-20 – the most you will pay at the Stand is a tenner, and at last year’s Fringe I saw Sarah Millican, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Alun Cochrane, Andi Osho and Andy Zaltzman there – all top comedians performing in a space made for comedy. When he tours Kitson will choose venues where he can earn but will not charge what he feels is too much and has even apologised when that has happened.

Kitson does this because he believes in his craft and its purity. And it works. Since 2002 he has written and toured six full length stand up shows and the same number of theatrical pieces. In addition he has written pieces in collaboration with singer-songwriter Gavin Osborn to be performed at his Regents Park open air theatre shows, taken part in runs of The Honourable Men of Art with David O’Doherty, Andy Zaltzman and Alun Cochrane, and toured (again with Osborn) as support to fey indie whimsyists Belle & Sebastian.

The standard throughout has been amazingly high – having won the top comedy award at the Fringe Kitson is no longer eligible, although I doubt he’d want to be, but he has won theatrical Fringe Firsts for five of his six story telling pieces. Both his stand up and story telling concern themselves with the minutiae of life. His heroes are librarians, pensioners, the suicidal, and in one case his flat! Kitson has been called a misanthrope, and on the surface this is understandable, but listen to his words and a love for humanity shines through, an admiration of the heroism needed simply to live everyday life at times. And honesty also shines through, from the man who spends his life diligently cataloging discarded compilation tapes in C-90, to Kitson himself as he describes how he feels to his father in It’s the Fireworks Talking.

For me it was his stand up show The Impotent Fury of the Privileged that most clearly showed Kitson’s love/hate relationship with humanity. He loves humanity but is frustrated at the ways we behave which hold us back and so the misanthropy emerges. I saw this show three times and it helped to clarify some of my own feelings – so, you know, I love you, but don’t be a twat.

Over the years Kitson has teased us with promises of CDs and DVDs but as yet nothing has come of it. And this is a shame as his work needs to be preserved, and not only because he speaks so quickly that his pieces are dense with detail. He is a true master at what he does, and earlier this year was voted the comedian’s top comedian in a poll by his peers. His contempt for television means that even a performance piece on BBC4 is lost to us. This dislike of the media world comes from the desire to control his own work, as evidenced by his methods since 2002. He also did not enjoy his experience on Phoenix Nights, which brings us back to the beginning of this piece: wondering what he called Peter Kay on that Edinburgh night? It rhymes with Jeremy Hunt, as various BBC presenters might tell you. According to Kitson, and since backed up by numerous other accounts, Kay was a control freak and unpleasant to work with. Kitson wants no part of that world and so instead of taking the easy route to panel show fame and riches, went entirely the other way. And it’s worked – he can produce his work with no pressures and retain its integrity, and at the same time allow his audience to see it on his terms and as it should be. The best comedian people have never heard of, Daniel Kitson doesn’t want to be king, although if you asked him he’d tell you that he’d be excellent at it.

Public sector, private profit

The edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches shown last night presented a nightmarish picture of negligent staff and inefficient services within the NHS. There will be deserved anger at the staff who were shown to be at best neglectful, and at worst downright guilty of serious misconduct regarding the patients in their care, and I would hope that appropriate action is taken against them. But are they the problem or merely a symptom of the destructive impact the encroachment of the private sector on the public sector has had?

In an earlier post I pointed out the irony of David Cameron’s claim that the public sector is the ‘enemy of enterprise’. Having worked in the public sector for the last 15 years I can say that it is in fact the increasing influence of private sector practices and methodology within public services that has brought us to the place we are today, where demoralised and disenfranchised staff fight to continue to provide a decent service in the face of relentless cost cutting exercises and slavish adherence to meaningless and trite targets set by central government.

In order to administer the never ending quest to hit targets a whole new breed of manager has appeared and proliferated. Interested only in being seen to be achieving and window dressing the real issues, these are professional managers rather than vocational – where it used to be that senior managers would have worked their way up and have a good working knowledge of their field, we are increasingly seeing the top jobs taken by the new breed who appear to be more focused on managing spreadsheets and reports rather than addressing the day to day reality of providing essential services. We now have a whole level of senior management which is over resourced and disconnected from the ‘shop floor’.

It is often the case that the targets set detract from the real work that needs to be done, the ‘less important’ (non-targeted) work is neglected in the face of the threat of draconian punishments should management not be able to produce the reports showing them in the best light. These in turn are fed up the ladder and eventually some junior minister will proclaim that rigorous standards have be set and maintained, and aren’t we a good little government? Meanwhile, back on the ground floor, staff are reaching burn out and service users are being told that they’re being treated grandly while experiencing the opposite.

You may think that experienced and valued staff would be able to approach senior managers and offer their own view on how the plethora of new procedures and targets should be implemented, after all, they’re surely in the best position to see what impact these will have on the day to day operation of their service? Again in my experience the new style of manager pays only lip service to consultation and will often implement major operational changes with no consultation whatsoever, and without any concern for either the needs of the staff or the overall level of service provided. Try and suggest that perhaps things could be done differently, or that your experience shows possible problems on the horizon, and you will be tagged as a troublemaker and threatened with disciplinary action. I’ve seen it happen all too often.

We saw in last night’s Dispatches the reaction by a senior manager when the methodology and policies he and his fellow managers pursue were questioned – he petulantly turned tail and refused to be interviewed any further unless members of staff were present with the grievances he had been told about – he knew that wouldn’t happen despite any number of assurances regarding the lack of repercussions for any ‘whistle blowers’.

And so we end up with public services full of people wanting to help, wanting to do what they’re being paid for, but instead caught up in the politics of being seen to be doing the right thing while keeping costs down. Is it any surprise that standards fall, that previously attentive staff members start to make mistakes or, worse, even stop caring about their work. Of course, this does not excuse the minority of slackers you will find in every job, but it’s not as simple as blaming those on the front line for poor service.

The whole target culture was introduced under Tony Blair’s neo-liberal government, a government almost as much in thrall to the market as its supposed enemies on the right. Ministerial offices began issuing dictats to their respective services ordering that costs be cut and key performance indicators (KPIs) be met. At this time I noticed in my own organisation a marked increase in the numbers of senior managers and consultants being drafted in to achieve these targets. Billeted high above the action, they would pore over reports and spreadsheets and implement strategies that wouldn’t work at which point they’d look at more spreadsheets and reports. Absent from all this were the views of the staff on the frontline – a huge resource of knowledge and experience is going to waste.

The notion of targets and cost cutting as applied in the private sector simply does not translate to public services. One is responding to markets, the other is responding to the needs of the population – these two things are not compatible. And now Cameron wants to further entrench private sector values (and companies!) within our services: the needs of the public will have to be weighed against the needs of the shareholders, and we’ve seen the results of that particular battle within the privatised utility and transport companies.

Cameron’s claim that public spending is to blame for our financial malaise and we need to slash and burn in order to save ourselves is of course a game of smoke and mirrors. Figures show that the treasury is spending 30% less on debt interest than in 1997 despite all the coalition scaremongering. Where Labour used the notions of ‘best value’ and efficiency to start the incremental privatisation of public services, this government is using the smokescreen of debt to introduce the interests of big business and the markets wholesale into areas where there may be easy profit to be made, but it will be at the cost of services that we hold dear.