Monday, 29 April 2013

Switzerland News

As can be seen from the diagram on My Favourite Wiki, Switzerland is not a member of the EU but in 2000 it signed the Agreement on Free Movement of Persons with the European Union. (Reports the Independent on Sunday)

It's not clear why they would sign that since Swiss citizens appeared to be able to move freely without it, but there must have been some reason at the time.  Perhaps in those balmy pre-9/11, pre-banking-crisis days it seemed like a good idea. Switzerland's majority trade is with the EU so it makes sense not to annoy the customers.  However, it also looks like a surreptitious way to try to get the Swiss to agree, de facto, to something they had already voted against.

Just in case of trouble, there was a safety-clause written in giving the Swiss state the power to restrict entry via a permit system but even that power will lapse.   However, for the moment it has been invoked, capping the numbers of people who can come in to Switzerland from certain states.   As wth all EU-related matters, the power is hedged about with conditions, categories and implementation dates, making it take effect slowly and incrementally.

But the overall pattern is clear: these levels of immigration are not acceptable to the Swiss people and the government has reacted to that.  Since the complaint is reported by the Independent as immigration pushing up house prices as a result of business expansion and Switzerland being a very attractive place for businesses to relocate, it can be assumed that the squeeze is being felt by middle-class voters.  The BBC however, reports this as if the concern is about the influx of lower-paid workers

The doctrine of free movement of people is good for the businesses and the individuals who move to secure better conditions for themselves.  However, the doctrine takes no account of the way this also imposes a disbenefit across the rest of the society. Demands for infrastructure: transport, housing, policing, health services and education rise. These have to be paid for by existing taxpayers who may then find they also face greater competition.  Benefit is privatized, the wider costs nationalized.  There can be good reasons for doing that, such as the general benefit of education, but the costs should be recognized properly instead of pretending they don't exist.

The Swiss mode of government includes regular use of referenda.  It is therefore arranging two of them to find out exactly what people - their citizens, not other folk and especially not Germans - want their government to do.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Follies - Pied Pipers

The best excuse for watching a pile of old musicals on DVD is that you are swotting in preparation for a Sondheim.  Then on to Cambridge for the Pied Pipers production of his 1971 elegy on the lost world of the fictional Weismann's Follies.

A musical must be accessible and Stephen Sondheim follows this rule but his intricate writing can be appreciated better if you already know about the world he set the story in.  In 1971 this was part of common consciousness but that was itself 42 years ago; there is a danger that a musical about people confronting their own pasts sometime in the 1960s might itself have become a ghost. 

Because he's a genius Sondheim foresaw this and also had some luck in the emergence of the video industry. Old musicals don't die although they sometimes go in to limbo. The references are always available now but he made sure he put enough in to the script even if you have never watched one.  The tour de force of Loveland where the couples collide with their own memories and act out their own personal folly through popular genres of songs is breathtaking but could be baffling if you can't just let go and wallow in the lyrics.  The plot is going on under there, you just have to wait until it re-emerges.  The production has always divided critics, though. I think some of this is simply that Brits are sympathetic to meditations on faded glamour whereas Americans see it as a reproach.

The premise is simple; a reunion of the old Follies performers, most of them female, takes place before the theater is pulled down. There is unfinished business between some of them. It has to be finished that night because there will never be another chance.  Thus the stage is set as a splendid but decayed theatre; high American Gothic.  It is a ghost of the real Zeigfeld Theatre, pulled down in 1966. They will do one last performance. 

Designers Andrew Feathertone and Sarah Phelps get this right when they show the damaged fabric of the theatre. The 1971 designs suggested a space which was was nearly gutted, but that would not distinguish it from any other warehouse. 

Director Jacob Allan has to manage a complicated stage where the memories of showgirls past parade along the balcony like shades of Hamlet's father along the battlements of Elsinore.  The younger selves of the key characters step out of the past either to show us what really happened, or sometimes to show us how they remembered it.  Not necessarily the same thing.

This is not a minimalist production; although there is only one set there are numerous costume changes for the secondary characters and intricate choreography to bring the past and present characters to the right places on the stage, capturing the spectacle of the Follies.  This is particularly successful in the big number "Who's that Woman?" where a tableau flows in to a tap dance which involves all the women, past and present.

As the company is fantastically devoted to performance they all give Sondheim's words the clarity they deserve but two interpretations stand out.  Kirsty Smith as Solange, the French diva (who may or may not ever have been French) conveys all the flinty determination of a woman with her own brand of perfume to sell. She produces a gem in Ah, Paris!, which she delivers just fractionally flat in the correct stage-French style, the method by which millions of people have been convinced they are listening to a sophisticated Gallic chanteuse. Everything about the character is perfectly observed, right down to the dress ring over her elbow-length gloves.

Stephen Waring as Buddy Plummer has to do a superb acting job because unlike most of the other characters Plummer is not a performer. An oil engineering salesman, yes, but essentially he plays the civilian on a stage full of combatants. Even Ben Stone, played by Matthew Chancellor, is a literate, articulate character used to operating on a par with the intellectual elite in society. Waring has to portray the moderately successful ordinary guy, middle-America rather than Washington.    He is therefore given one of the most tongue-twisting pieces to perform in a vaudeville number, The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues whilst doing a galumphing chase dance with the fantasy versions of the women who are driving him mad.

Full marks to the Pied Pipers for this ambitious staging.  At time of writing there are only two tickets left so you'll have to lobby them to give it another outing. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Footloose - Irving Stage Company

To the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds for the opening night of Footloose performed by the Irving Stage Company.

Those who know this 1998 toe-tapper adapted from a 1984 dance movie will be familiar with the big numbers "Footloose" "Holding Out for a Hero" and "Let's Hear it for the Boy".  The company has to get the energy up on these because they are the feel-good spine of the story which holds against the very dark background of mourning, fear, and entanglement with a violent young man.

As it was opening night the company was coltish, wobbly on its legs to start with, so it was with great pleasure that the audience could see them hitting their stride as the company orchestra, directed by Mark Jefferson, went through the score faultlessly, sweeping them along.  During 'Holding Out for a Hero' the company began to relax and swing in to it. By 'Let's Hear it for the Boy' they were a unified force on the stage.

The glossy programme (designer Camille Berriman) with thoughtful notes  recounts that the show is animated by the fact that this really happened; a tiny town in Oklahoma had banned dancing and a youth there challenged the edict and won.  The writer and composer Dean Pritchford then built a classic conflict and resolution plot around that. It isn't candyfloss - there's a proper play in there and Shakespeare would recognise it.

The strength of the plot makes great demands on performers.  There is only one unambiguously bad character, all the rest are very good people but mistaken. This is a greater test of acting ability that goodies and baddies; the players have to hold our sympathy especially when they are wrong.  The toughest job on stage is managed by Daniel Bunker as the middle-aged Reverend Shaw Moore, doubly difficult where the musical is performed in a country where the audience may not understand American reverence for Christianity. Bunker carries it superbly as he has to confess to the audience how close he is to breakdown when his whole life is built on his ability to be strong for other people.

Brian Carmack, who really is from Chicago, plays the outsider Ren McCormack, moved from Chicago to a very small town indeed,  one even smaller than Bury St Edmunds.  He  provides a tuning-fork for the company; without this there is a danger of a rag-bag of cod-American impersonation. Accent coach Darian Vomund orchestrated the speaking voices convincingly and exploited Carmack's voice to create a an audible difference between the out-of-towners and the sharply-spoken city boy.

Carmack and Josie May Harrington as Ariel Moore  have to lead the youth side of the story. They must capture how dangerously naive the highschoolers are.  This is tricky for director Sian Couture to pitch correctly as it can all go 'a bit Operation Yewtree'.  Although the Ariel Moore character can be assumed to be over the age of consent, she's  close to it and has tangled herself up in to an exploitative and abusive relationship with a Chuck Cranston, played by Ben Child.

Within the story it is made clear that Cranston is a youth but Ben Child gives him a harder edge which is more credible in its manipulation.  Cranston pretends to be concerned for Ariel's welfare but he knows what he is doing when he goes out of his way to tell the Reverend Moore that his daughter has lied to her parents.  His aim is to inflict as much damage as possible on the family out of pure spite, particularly towards the reverend's grieving wife, played by Angela Grant.

The sub-plot of Rusty and Willard, played by Serena Grant and Ben Musgrove,  requires that both of them bring an audience to its feet, which they do.  Willard's character arc is also demanding. Musgrove has to persuade us he can go from tongue-tied country boy to the spinner of shrewd folk wisdom. He does this via the superb number 'Mama says', full of glorious one-liners set in a slapstick routine. Luckily it has a short reprise after the audience has finished clapping -  we could easily stand see the whole thing again, particularly the line "Mama says the things you believe are the only things you really own". Discuss.

Keeping the stage relatively bare and moving a few props and a little scaffolding, the sets were created quickly by lighting so that the action kept moving. Special congratulations for choreography by Sian Couture and Christine Glancy.   Inspired  use of Achy Breaky Heart resolves the stage in to waves of line-dancing which perfectly express the universal appeal of dance.

Footloose is on until 27 April, so get in quickly.   Don't forget your check shirt and cowboy hat.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Prince Charles' watercolours

Prince Charles has, of course, collected a kicking from the Telegraph for his watercolours, despite obligingly providing them with several column's worth of material to blether about.  There's no such ingratitude here; this blog knows a freebie when it sees one.  

The Prince has published on line a gallery of his pictures.  The gallery begins here.

A serious publication deserves serious evaluation - he's no less entitled to that than anybody else who picks up a brush and allows you to see their work.  Watercolour is a defiant medium; it's just you, a few colours, paper, brush, and a pot of water.  That's all you need to record your world.  It's much less complicated than most other media but technically its a testing one because you have to have it clear in your head what you want to do and then lay it down in relatively few strokes.

Watercolour doesn't give much in the way of second chances; too many revisions and it goes muddy.  Spiritually it is closer to handwriting than painting; it's best if you get it right (write) first time because the corrections are difficult to disguise.   Experimentation is best done on cheaper paper; the idea is to find out how to work the brush and paint without worrying about a picture, then, when you have sorted out the strokes, turn back to reality and try to get the picture space organized.

Watercolour is democratic; it costs relatively few pounds to get going with a decent block of paper, a couple of brushes and a limited pan of colours.  The brushes are the most expensive items but cheap brushes will still get you started. You will be working with materials which any professional would be just as happy to use.  The grandma taking a U3A class starts from the same place as an Academician.

It is therefore interesting that the Prince chooses not an expensive camera but something which links him to every school child and hobbyist in the country.  Moreover, he chooses to pursue that common experience "Wow, I wonder if I could get that down on paper?".  Most of us give up at that point and get out the camera.

The pictures have been grouped by theme and location. It is obvious where his heart is, but for evaluation the question is: has he caught the differing lights in the various countries? How you judge that might depend on how well you know the places.  I think it is obvious from the selection that he is using watercolour as a private record, a way of fixing experience on paper but is not always sure which aspect of experience it would be best to anchor the picture in.

There are choices in any picture when you have only limited time and palette.  A giant major oil painting allows you to try for several in the same picture, but with watercolour you have to make that decision at the beginning and stick to it.  Do you want the structure of the rocks and buildings? Or are you more concerned to always be able to get back to the fleeting sense of light over a landscape? Or you might be more in love with the impossible colours and decide to focus all your attention on the them and their relationship to each other. This might yield an abstract image which structurally bears little resemblance to the thing you saw.  

Painters such as Samuel Edward Kelly (below) managed to combine these competing aspects and yet keep the colours clean, but there is also a strand of English watercolours which simply gives up and lets it go all sepia. They often paint decrepit barns and cottages where you'd expect it to be dingy.

Samuel Edward Kelly. Babbacombe.

It is often said that Prince Charles dithers; his pictures express an uncertainty about which aspect he wants.   Since photography has been invented, it isn't strictly necessary to paint a picture for that purpose now. If he picked two high-contrast shades, light and dark, concentrating only on pushing areas of the picture plane back, pulling others forward, he'd find the weight of the rocks compared to the lightness of the air would emerge.  They don't have to be strictly real; they just have to work in relation to each other.

Alternatively, many of the pictures show he is struck with the unearthly intensity of colour but then steps back politely, as if he doesn't want to be caught over-reacting and feels unable to lay down the ultramarine in case someone accuses him of not getting it quite right. The online collection does not show it, but there are times when light around Sandringham is psychotic; the leggy pine tress turn brick-red with slashes of dark emerald needles, the sky turns cerulean blue and the sun blood-drops in to the Wash.  Those are the evenings he should be out on Holkham beach saying this is my paintbox, my picture, and I'll damn well paint it whatever colour I see fit.

Overall  - sound catalogue, keep going, get bolder. There's always some bugger telling you that you can't do it this way, or that you shouldn't try at all. Don't listen to the Telegraph.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

When I'm 54 - the funeral of Baroness Thatcher

History has limitless time to evaluate her life and effects on British politics; the funeral is the closing of one chapter and the beginning of that process.

The note today is that she was 54 when she became Prime Minister.  She didn't think "I've put 30 years in, I've led this party back in to power, I'll do two years and then plead illness, get a nice little country estate, go and spend some fun time with my money". 

Instead, she did her best to lead the country.   Everybody has their own opinion about how that went, and tomorrow that can be argued about.  But today her example is that being over 50 has its drawbacks but it also has experience, fortitude and the possibility that the greater works may be done later in life because one finally has the knowledge of how to do them.

She has earned her rest.


 H/T Ambush Predator

Friday, 12 April 2013

Prosecutions for use of Social Media

There seems to be a lot of activity around the subject of investigation and prosecution for the use of the social media.  I think the document people may be looking for is this:

Issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 19 December 2012

If your query concerns Paris Brown, who recently stepped down from being a Youth Commissioner for Kent Police, the following CPS clarification may be of interest to you:
where a communication has been sent that is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false, there are a number of factors that are likely to mean that a prosecution is not in the public interest.
One of these factors is whether the suspect has taken swift action to remove the communication or expressed genuine remorse.
Brown apologized and removed the items. It is difficult to see any public interest in taking the matter any further.

The Scotsman has some figures which may also be of interest:
Scotland Yard revealed that three police officers have been sacked for misusing social media over the past five years. Allegations linked to the use of sites including Facebook and Twitter have been recorded against 75 Metropolitan Police officers since 2009, with 38 of the claims substantiated.
Disclaimer: this post is merely a link to relevant documents.


Update 1 May 2013

Olswang LLP, who represented Paris Brown, have provided an excellent summary of the case. 

Essentially, the police had to respond to the 50 complaints about a few tweets although they've got plenty of burglaries, murders and rapes to be going on with.

Responding suitably should have taken about a morning to check the published guidelines and note that the material arguably didn't come with in the scope of the guidelines, it had been removed, an apology had been given, and Paris Brown was under 18 so the bar for prosecution is set very high.  They could have asked a CPS lawyer if they weren't sure what the guidelines meant.  Then they could have politely declined to take the matter further.

Instead - and this is what we should be kicking about - they used the mere excuse of complaints of being offended to confiscate property and interview a child under caution.    Then they had to drop any thought of charges since it was obviously a non-starter.  Well done to Olswang for highlighting this abuse of process.


It is obviously ridiculous that a teenager has to call in a lawyer to protect her from the agents of the state who should have had more sense than to join in with child-kicking.     Was their purpose in doing so nothing to do with the 50 complaints but rather a convenient excuse to examine communications between a police commissioner and her appointee?   

Following the irregularities in the Andrew Mitchell Affair (which is still being investigated)  there needs to be an independent investigation of the 50 source complaints to see if they were in fact genuine members of the public or if there was a concerted action by either a political lobby, police or those connected to them such as close family. 

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Back to The Minack

The Minack Theatre opened the 2013 season in chilly but jolly form with Craig Johnson's Squashbox Theatre giving morning performances aimed at teenies.

 Children wrapped up against the blow from the sea settled down round him looking like woolly cupcakes round a candle.  The wind was so fresh he had to have an assistant keeping the scenery on the ground. Johnson's nemesis is a sea anemone brought out from his rock pool for our delight, but he's also taunted by an ocean full of limpets, sea-squirts, crabs and his seagull friend, Ruan.

As he takes us through his Cornish world we meet  fishwives, sailors and the enchanting mermaid Morwenna.  I can't tell you what she said - it's a spell, you only know you've heard one - but I can tell you that the man in the next family nearly burst with laughter.  He was a helpless jelly the way a four-year old goes when something strikes them as impossibly hilarious.  She must have reminded him of an old girlfriend.

Squashbox's theatre contains improving elements of education, but you won't notice them as he handles them with a supreme lightness of touch.  If it gently reminds children - and adults - to put litter in the bin  then I'd much rather it was done this way than  by repeated ugly nagging, which doesn't work.

If you don't have or can't borrow any children, go anyway because Craig Johnson does magic before your very eyes, conjuring an alternative reality out of his imagination.

 The Minack is looking very spruce indeed this year with a few new seats added. There is also a weekly feature on Saturday mornings on Billy Rawlings, who came as Rowena Cade's gardener and handyman then moved heaven and earth to build her a theatre.

Mark Harandon has researched and re-created the character of Billy and will lead you
around the theatre telling stories and reminiscing about how it was built. Come along between 10am and 2pm and catch up with ‘Billy’ in the theatre to hear his stories.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013

The White Hart is a noble creature which is nonetheless doomed before it starts its run because clever people  have already put a chain round its neck and have organized the traps it will inevitably fall in to.   This does not prevent the hart from running, time and time again, even though the hunters think they've killed it.  The errors the hart makes while running do not make it any less noble; there is a limit to what even the best runner can cope with and it is always outnumbered.

All fans of English and Celtic mythology know that when the old hart dies, a new one is growing in the shade of the forest and that it runs with the hopes and life of the nation on its back. It hasn't broken cover yet. When it does it will have all the distilled experience of the old hart to draw on.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Job of the Month - Chief of Staff, Kent Police

Quick - here's your chance for 90k's worth of goodies plus pension contributions and all the rides in blues and twos you can handle.  Luckily, you won't have to do anything nasty like real work or dealing with dangerous violent people - it's all pretendy work.  No formal qualifications or experience required. 

Ann Barnes  hasn't a clue how to do the job despite being elected to be the new Commissioner.  Her first puppet was an average teenager who was in tears within a week because Ann failed to recognize that actually, you are nuts to expect a child to carry that kind of responsibility and public exposure.  Her second appointment is supposed to figure out how to do the job, and do it, so that Ann can continue to collect the dosh for pretending to.

Anyhoo, here's the outline:
This post will provide the mainstay of direct support to the Kent PCC. This is the first role of its kind and as such the post holder will have the flexibility and freedom to create the framework of support needed by the PCC who has stated that her aim is to be the most visible, accessible and transparent Commissioner in the country.
This means 'For god's sake, tell me what the job is and make me look good'.  Fair enoughski, isn't that what the faithful 2-i-c people of the world do all the time?
This role is not a single focused senior administrative role, this is a high profile, potentially frequently pressurised, busy and varied role – you will never be bored!  As the manager of the Office of the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) you must possess excellent interpersonal skills that you can adapt to any situation. You will be an inspirational leader, who inspires and motivates people from all walks of life, whether this is the staff working in the OPCC, officers and staff from Kent Police, members of the public or those people working in partnership organisations and agencies – in fact anyone you come into contact with.
This sounds to me more like what was intended of the Commissioner, but Ann clearly hasn't any intention of doing it so it's a better billet than the usual 2-i-c as you don't have the ghastly admin or being made to do it all yourself.  On the other hand, you'll almost certainly have to polish Ann's ego and make it seem as if she has thought everything good while you collect the blame for anything which goes wrong.    At 90k plus bennies, this should slap a lot of balm on your own blistered ego.  After all, you didn't win the election, did you.
 You will be able to provide clear, objective, authoritative and impartial advice based on analysis and interpretation of complex information and situations.
Ann can't work out what the briefs mean so you are supposed to read them and explain them to her. 
As an effective horizon scanner, you should be able to anticipate the needs of the PCC and present information before it is requested.
Preferably psychic.
Alongside this you will have developed a structure to provide regular, relevant management information that informs and updates the PCC on progress without creating burdensome bureaucracy.
Pull some numbers out of your arse. They don't matter and there is no budget for gathering proper info - it was all spent on commissioners, youth commissioners and your wages.  The least you can do is a bit of cut'n'pasting, you ingrate.

By the by, you have to be nice to Paris Brown, the youth commissioner - but then for goodness sake, the child was always going to be made to look awful.  Think of it as social work, trying to patch up Ann's idiocy. 

Here's what Ann promised the people of Kent and what she is now relying on you to implement for her.

In a better world this job would not exist because the Chief Constable would already be doing most of it,  but since it does, why not put in an on-line application and give that money the very best chance of a good home where it will be appreciated. The real police will regard you with all the enthusiasm of something nasty on their shoes, but as soon as they get the drift of where you are coming from - being Ann's walker - they will at least temper their derision with pity.

My tip for the job would be to make friends with the mounted divisions, then get the horses out on PR appearances in the shopping centres. Everyone loves police horses.

Alternatively, if this seem too much like hard work and you are male, consider getting two women pregnant with at least five children apiece, then live on benefits. I gather it pays about the same.  On balance, I know which I'd prefer to subsidize.

Update 10/4/2013

The Mail reports that Paris Brown has stepped down following reports that the police have been dragged in on the basis that her tweets may be within the scope of the criminal law.  Her previous job - a trainee booking clerk in the parks department -  may not be open to her now that her employers have an excuse to sack her for her comments.

So now we've got an unemployed and possibly unemployable child under the age of 18 whose biggest sin, as far as we know, involves being a bit gobby. No arson, mugging, embezzlement, torture of animals, not even as much as a caution for dropping litter - just a kid mistaking their nascent musings for hip writing which, of course, never happened before in the history of text.

Ann Barnes is still there on £85k (which is surprisingly less than her lieutenant will earn) while having shoved a kid through this sugar-cane crusher in pursuit of her own public image.  The moment the allegations emerged she should have taken protective action instead of making the teenager humiliate herself in public for Ann's programme.

The only person who owes it to the electorate to step down is Barnes for having shown such obvious lack of commonsense and duty of care in the first place.  If Keith Vaz had any decency he'd resign too.  Yes, I know, don't hold my breath.

Update 11/04/2013

The Times reports that the police have been criticized by media lawyer Mark Stephens, who pointed out that Keir Starmer already issued guidelines on investigation of comments on social media. What exactly it has to do with Starmer, who runs the CPS but not the police, I'm not quite sure, but it is his job to advise about offences so it is probably worth checking what he says.  The point here is that twenty years ago a police officer would have understood that one is free to hold odious opinions and express them.   Now, the expression of those opinions - not just incitements against target groups - is something the state feels free to investigate so long as it has the flimsy excuse of 'somebody complained'.

These are the interim guidelines

The comments attributed to Brown were likely to fail the 'high threshold' test i.e. there was no public interest justification in pursuing them.  Or, put it another way, if Brown is going to be chased, then so should many of the commenters on the passing of Mrs Thatcher.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The return of Mr Ishmael

Like Merlin, he awakes just when you need him most:

"These telly MPs are just unspeakable. I’ve seen them, close-up, in the TeeVee studios, they’re not quite sure whether they are legislators who happen to be on telly or nascent stars, just a soundbite away from a lucrative, Robert Kilroy-Shit career. 

It’s partly down to their cowardliness, their terror in the face of a producer or a make-up girl, but it’s also due to the unique cocktail of stupidity, vanity, greed, dishonesty and arrogance which flows through their sclerotic arteries; they’re filth, all of them, cocksuckers, shiteaters, pimps, slags, blackmailers, fraudsters, beasts, nonces,  FuckMeJesus but the house of commons makes the Vatican look like a decent, wholesome  place."