Thursday, 28 June 2012

Eavesdrop #11

Four schoolgirls are in a cafe. One of them is speaking to her three friends.

So she phoned me yeah she phoned me like she never speaks to me but she phoned me and I was like 'whatever' but she asked me to go shopping in town with her yeah and I was like 'cool' so we met up and she was like 'yeah so like me and Tariq are like fully going out now so you need to like back off of him' and I was like 'what the fuck' and she was like 'yeah just stop hassling him cos we're together now' and I was like 'but I'm going out with Kylie like everyone knows that.' Fuck's sake. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Speech

David Cameron delivered his speech on welfare reform today. In it, he gave some examples of the types of people of working age who are in receipt of Housing Benefit or struggling to live within their means. Below is a transcript of the examples given by Mr. Cameron with some notes that have been added to help him come to terms with his weird relationship with the notion of fairness

Take a couple living outside London.
He’s a hospital porter, she’s a care-worker. 
They’re both working full-time and together they take home £24,000 after tax.
They’d love to start having children – and they know they’d get some help from the state if they did so.
But with the mortgage and the bills to pay, they feel they should keep saving up for a few more years.
But the couple down the road, who have four children, haven’t worked for a number of years. Oh. how come both of them aren't working, Mr. Cameron? There must be a reason. If all or some of their four children are under the age of five, then it's probably reasonable to expect one of them to be at home caring for them which, by the way, is work, it's just not paid work. Or, maybe one or both them have health problems and have been deemed, by law, not well enough to work? Or maybe they're both in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and are looking for work but haven't found any yet because they've been unlucky or because they didn't do that well at school and can't read and write very well? It's important to explain this kind of thing in your speech because if you don't (which you didn't) it gives the public the impression that this couple are feckless spongers who are laughing all the way to the dole office.
Each week they get £112 in income support, £61 in child benefit, £217 in tax credits and £141 in housing benefit – more than £27,000 a year. This is weird and inaccurate. It is highly unlikely that a couple would be in receipt of Income Support unless there were some serious health problems going on. It is far more likely that this couple are in receipt of a joint award of JSA and that one of the couple is actively seeking work while the other is caring for their children (or, if not, actively seeking work as well). But the couple being seen in this light - with both parents doing their best - doesn't really suit your campaign does it, Mr. Cameron? JSA is generally seen as the more acceptable benefit because people have to actually be doing something (actively seeking work) to be given it, whereas Income Support conjures images of lazy, irresponsible families with too much time on their hands and a drain on the state. In short, it was sneaky and calculating of you to say that this couple are in receipt of Income Support rather than JSA.
Even after the £26,000 benefit cap is introduced, they’ll still take home more than their neighbours who go out to work every day. Naughty, Mr. Cameron! You know that's literally not true! This couple wouldn't take home more than £27,000 per year. The money that this couple are entitled to via Housing Benefit (probably around £800 per month) will go straight into the pocket of their landlord and they will not actually see any of it. You know this statement is, at best, misleading and at worst, lying.
Can we really say that’s fair? What, exactly? That most young people are struggling to live within their means, whether or not they're on benefits? No, it's not fair. But the way that you (ie, your speech writers) have crafted this speech gives the impression that couple number two with their benefits and their children are in a better position than their neighbours. They're not. You'd have us believe that the couple who are saving up for kids are doing the right thing and the couple with kids are doing the wrong thing. This is unfair. The reason that the couple with children are on benefits is because they had no job and no money when they claimed. They receive (literally receive) about £4000 per year less than the couple without children whose combined income is far from high and this couple have no children to support.
Next there’s the situation with young people who want to leave home.
Take two young women living on the same street in London.
One studied hard at college for three years and found herself a full-time job – say as a receptionist [sexist] – on £18,000 a year, or about £1200 take-home pay a month.
She’d love to get her own place with a friend – but with high rents in her area, the petrol to get to work and all the bills, she just can’t afford it.
So she’s living at home with her mum and dad and is saving up desperately to move out. Good for her. And good for her parents, too, because millions of parents wouldn't allow this. Not because they're evil parents and not necessarily because they can't afford it but because they simply wouldn't want to do it.
Then there’s another woman living down the street.
She’s only 19 years-old and doesn’t have a job but is already living in a house with her friends.
Because when she left college and went down to the Job Centre to sign on for Job Seeker’s Allowance, she found out that if she moved out of her parents’ place, she was automatically entitled to Housing Benefit.
So that’s exactly what she did.
Again, is this really fair? Oh dear. The second young woman in this example is instantly seen as a benefit-savvy little minx who is lazy and workshy. First of all, the chances are that the house that this young woman shares with her friends is a shit hole. Why? Because your government introduced draconian measures in relation to the Housing Benefit regulations for people under the age of 35 which means that the amount of Housing Benefit they are allowed to receive is only 'enough' to cover the cost of a room in a shared house. In reality, the kinds of properties that will be available to people who are the subject of this rule, will be over crowded, too small and depressing. Secondly, when young people leave college, what they mostly want to do, is get a job because the reality is that most people want to work. It's very unlikely that a young woman who has just left college with a qualification will then think to herself, thank fuck that's over! Now I can go and sign on the dole and sit on my arse and do nothing with my life just so that I can get some of my rent paid so that I can continue to live in a cesspit. Excellent! What's more likely is that she left college and tried to find work but couldn't get a job straight away. Maybe she doesn't have her parents' hospitality to fall back on; maybe she doesn't get on with them, maybe they just don't want her to move back in. And what about the millions of young people who grow up in care? Or who are homeless? Are they to be demonised for not coming from a secure family background because they claim a benefit they're entitled to?

Mr. Cameron also said in his speech:

Surely we should ask if it’s fair that the maximum amount that you can get on housing benefit is set at a level that only the top five per cent of earners would otherwise be able to afford. If you're asking if it's fair that rents are so high, then no, it's not. You know what to do about this but you won't do it. Housing Benefit rates need to be as high as the highest rents. Anything else is discriminatory and backward.
Meanwhile those who work in expensive postcodes who aren’t on benefits typically have to move further out and commute in to work.
So this is a question that needs to be asked: should those on benefits be financially helped to live exactly where they want to? Well, this depends on whether the claimants in question are the deserving or undeserving poor doesn't it? A nice, middle class family who fall on hard times should be helped, via Housing Benefit, to stay in their nice house in their nice area, yes? But a homeless family with five children who have never worked, whose local authority are desperately trying to house, couldn't possibly be housed in large house in a respectable London borough and then make a claim for HOUSING BENEFIT for it, could they? That's not fair! Let's get this straight: people with large families need large houses to live in. Large houses are usually found in the nicer areas of towns and cities. From the outside, they usually look quite nice. Lucky them, we think. But, if a family entirely dependent on benefits moves into a large, old, privately rented house, the chances are it will be in a pretty bad state of repair, it will be badly insulated and it is likely that the family will fall into fuel poverty because they won't be able to afford the enormous heating bills. The idea that people who need Housing Benefit are housed or find housing exactly where they want to is offensive; being dependent on Housing Benefit is a huge hindrance to anyone trying to rent privately.

Yes, a lot of money is spent on Housing Benefit but most people in receipt of this benefit  - about seven out of eight - are in low paid, usually part-time work and claim Housing Benefit to pay some of their rent. And why do they need this? Because the private rented sector is out of control and rents are extortionate. The Housing Benefit bill would be reduced dramatically if rents were controlled.

Also, people need a decent wage. The last government tried to address this by introducing tax credits to help people in low paid work because it recognised the fact that a lot of businesses don't pay their staff a living wage. Again, if this was addressed more aggressively, the Housing Benefit bill would fall dramatically.

David Cameron's speech was frightening because he pretended that he wanted to have a national debate about welfare reform. We all know that no such debate will take place because these sinister measures are in the pipeline and have been since day one.

Friday, 22 June 2012


Last month’s festival of contemporary theatre, Mayfest took ten months to organise and was over in as many days. Described by its creaters as adventurous theatre for playful people, below is an overview of some of the shows featured in this year’s festival.

In The Con Artist by composer John Moran, the audience was invited into a dreamlike, stop-start sound world comprising snippets of interactions between Moran and people he encountered during a visit to Amsterdam. Moran’s ghostly embodiment of these characters, enhanced by his lip-syncing to pre-recorded conversations with them, was eerie and thrilling to watch.

Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011 was a visceral and heart-wrenching series of true-story snapshots of the city of Minsk and its citizens, set against a backdrop of politics and questions around sexual identity. The company, who are banned in Belarus, work with extremely limited resources but managed, nonetheless, to create a world bursting with urgency and vivid images. A striking and vital piece of theatre.

Crunch by Gary McNair was a tongue-in-cheek life coaching session which sought to challenge our relationship with money. The somewhat cagey audience was won over by the charming McNair, whose energy was liberating and fun and the show struck a pleasing balance between escapist entertainment and a more cerebral discussion about the philosophy of currency.

The weird world that was Episode was extraordinarily atmospheric, owing, in large part to the exquisite lighting design and haunting live soundtrack. A dance piece made up of six, ten-minute episodes, the audience was taken on a strange journey that ranged from unspeakable beauty to terrifying explosions of darkness. Frauke Requardt’s choreography boasted her panoramic skill; the dances tense, then airy, then full of rage, then tender and funny.

The Articulate Hand by performer, director and hand model Andrew Dawson was a delicate and unassuming performance lecture based on disabilities of the hands. Using light, audio, video and dance, Dawson created a moving and sensitive story about people whose lives had been dramatically changed by their hands giving up on them. 

Seven Day Drunk saw a glitter chucking, Casio keyboard playing, life-story telling Bryony Kimmings hurl herself through the true tale of her seven-day experiment to test the hypothesis that alcohol makes an artist more creative. It could have been an entirely narcissistic performance but it was saved by Kimmings’s self-deprecating manner and an unbearably poignant dance with a bottle of beer.

Mayfest brings together local, national and international theatre makers and uses a variety of theatre and non-theatre venues across the city. It attracts brave, risk-taking artists and the result is always a rich mixture of beauty, excitement and a great deal of fun. More please.

As printed in Crack Magazine

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Like Crazy

This is what happens in the film, Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus:

A young British woman is a student in Los Angeles. She's a really nice person and wears really cool clothes! She's quite quirky, but quirky in the way that Zooey Deschanel is quirky in 500 Days of Summer; she's much kinder than Zooey. She's really good at writing. She's just so lovely! She's called Anna. Her parents brought her up really well.

There's a guy in Anna's class called Jacob whose major is furniture design. He's rugged, but not macho because he's sensitive too. Anna just can't stop looking at him so she leaves a love note on his car. She looks really pretty when she does this because of the Los Angeles sunshine. The fact that Anna makes the first move means that this is a piece of Modern Film about a Modern Woman.

Jacob really loves Anna's note and they go on a date. Their date seems really realistic because it's pretty much improvised which makes you think that there's chemistry between them and that the film is good. The things they have in common are that they are both only children, their favourite album is Graceland by Paul Simon and they're both in the film Like Crazy. They really heart each other. They heart each other so much that there's a montage about it. Jacob makes Anna a beautiful wooden chair which you just know is going to be important later on!

But Anna's student visa is about to expire. Sad. There's heart ache and eye contact and conversations in bed and Anna overstays her visa and stays in LA for a couple more months before going back to London where her amazing, supportive, proud, still-totally-in-love-after-all-these-years, rich parents live.

After a week, Anna returns to LA to see Jacob but the people at border control won't let her through because she overstayed the last time she was there. The camera work and the acting in this scene make you realise what it must be like to be an asylum seeker. Poor Anna! She can't have her holiday! And poor Jacob too, don't forget. He hearts Anna Like Crazy.

It's really, like, sad because Anna and Jacob decide to just be friends and get on with their lives; Anna gets a hair cut, a job at a magazine and some new clothes that are more grown up than the ones she wore at college. She also gets a really beautiful one-bedroom flat with amazing lighting and expensive looking belongings. Jacob starts his own furniture making business and lives in a really trendy space. Well done, Anna and Jacob! You're both doing really well even though the person you heart like crazy is living thousands of miles away!

But then, one night, Anna gets a call from Jacob and at first it's really awkward but then it's just like old times and Jacob says he's coming to visit. And he brings the chair with him! The chair he made for Anna! They spend some time living Anna's life in London but it makes Jacob feel weird and like an outsider even though all the people in Anna's life are super lovely, the soundtrack is great and Anna smiles at him a lot. Anna's male neighbour (who you just know is going to be important later on) turns up at Anna's flat with a toasted sandwich maker that he borrowed. Jacob doesn't like it.

They go and see Anna's parents and after a few too many Laiphroaigs, Anna's understanding, trusting, sensitive, all-round-good-egg dad asks them why they don't just get married. This makes Jacob think. But the camera is really clever because you're not sure if Jacob's thinking in a good way or in a bad way.

Before Jacob goes back to LA, he and Anna have a talk about The Future and they agree that it's OK if they see other people. They have the talk in a beautiful park in the late afternoon sun and they both look really young and natural. They're so nice! Even though they might be slags!

Time passes and Jacob starts to see woman in LA called Sam. Even though you find out almost nothing about her, you're supposed to think she's a bitch. Anna's doing really well at her job at the magazine but she's obviously been thinking about what her dad said because she calls Jacob and tells him that she thinks they should Go For It and get married. Jacob breaks up with Sam - he does it really nicely because he's such a great guy - and goes to London to marry Anna. All they have to do now is wait for six months and then Anna can go and live with Jacob in LA.

But, oh no! Remember when Anna overstayed in the USA when her visa expired? America hasn't forgotten and the people at the Embassy in London say that there's nothing they can do. Jacob and Anna get angry and then go to Camden for a look round the market. They have a really tasteful argument about when to have dinner and then they go home.

At home, Jacob is texting Sam who tells him that she misses him and Anna sees the text! They have a really attractive row and Jacob tells Anna that he'd RATHERFUCKINGBEINAMERICA and Anna storms out. It's really harrowing and realistic. They're in the kitchen and everything. and when Anna storms out she leaves the cooking on.

Next thing you know, Anna is shacked up with the sandwich maker man and Jacob is back together with Sam. Anna's new boyfriend calls her darlin' even though he's really posh. And he buys her a new chair. It's upholstered. You just know he's not right for her. The soundtrack tells you he's not.

Anna gets an amazing promotion at her job and, as a way of saying well done, the new boyfriend invites her parents over for dinner so that he can propose to Anna in front of them. It's really awkward but Anna and her parents are very dignified about it all because they're such beautiful people. And, earlier that very same day, Anna received a call from her lawyer to tell her that her visa application has been granted. Dilemma!

Because Anna's so brave and rich, she packs up her things and gets on a plane to LA and she and Jacob pick up where they left off. They have a shower together but it's just not the same as it was before and Anna looks really beautiful and sad.

These kinds of films confuse us because they're vacuous in a way that isn't obvious. We might think we like Like Crazy because of the way it looks and because it made us cry. It thinks it's a real love story because of the improvised script and the cinematography and because it just about doesn't end happily. But, underneath the beautiful camera work, the semi-improvised performances, the fresh soundtrack and the quirky couple, this film is totally self-obsessed; it doesn't give its audience anything apart from maybe a sense of injustice that we can't afford to live in a flat as nice as Anna's even though we probably earn more money than she does.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Eavesdrop #10

Two men are walking and talking

Man 1: I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I fucking hate her.

Man 2: I quite like her

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Paint Colours

Bright Black
Inbox Grey
Completely and Utterly White
Sad Sad Yellow
Mental Purple
Angry Apples
Kate Middleton
Angela's Ashes
Catholic Guilt

Monday, 11 June 2012


B is a 53 year old woman who lives alone. She had a heart attack approximately six months ago and also suffers from fibromyalgia, anxiety and clinical depression. She has attempted suicide ten times in as many years. She walks with a stick most days, is in acute pain throughout her whole body most of the time, is often too afraid to leave the house because of paranoia and anxiety and fantasises about ending her life several times per day. She says that remaining in the same position for more than 15 minutes at a time is almost impossible for her because of the pain in her body.

B is also haunted by memories of sexual and physical abuse from care givers and former partners, so much so that she says she cannot function properly in the world. 

B says that she would like very much to be able to work but that, as a result of her physical and mental health, work is not an option for her.

Until recently, B was in receipt of Incapacity Benefit, an out of work benefit for people who are unwell. As a result of the coalition's welfare reforms, Incapacity Benefit was scrapped and replaced by Employment & Support Allowance (ESA). Not surprisingly, an award of ESA is much harder to secure than an award of the old Incapacity Benefit.

B's Incapacity Benefit was coming to an end and she was invited to make a new claim for ESA, which she did. Entitlement to ESA works on a point-scoring basis; a claimant needs to score at least 15 points by way of a physical and mental health assessment. The points can come from the physical descriptors, the mental descriptors or a combination of the two.

B scored nil points in her medical assessment, the decision about her claim therefore being  that she did not have limited capability for work related activity. In short, her claim was unsuccessful.

B made an appeal against the decision and a copy of the medical assessment was acquired by the caseworker assisting her.

B's medical assessment lasted for eight minutes. The health care professional (HCP) states that B was observed to sit in a chair without difficulty for seven minutes. This is an irrelevant observation as the threshold for the sitting and standing descriptors starts at 30 minutes (a claimant is awarded nine points for being unable to sit in a chair without the help of another person for more than 30 minutes, and six points for being unable to do so for one hour).

In the mental health assessment, the HCP notes that B was able to walk to the local shop, alone, to buy bread and milk 'a few times per week' and that this was consistent with someone in good mental health. There is no mention of what B does for the rest of the week or why she can only manage to get to the shop so seldom and no mention of her long history of abuse, neglect or attempts to end her life. More importantly, there is no mention of B having been asked any of these questions.

The prognosis at the end of the HCP's report (the space where the HCP should give a clear explanation of his/her opinion) simply states that 'a return to work can be expected in three months' which is one of the most used sentences in reports of this kind where a claimant has failed to score points.

B has met with her caseworker four times. Each time they meet, B says the same thing: that she feels like a liar even though she knows she's not; that not being able to work is ruining her life and that she can feel another heart attack coming on.

B's appeal is to be heard by an independent Tribunal this week.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Only Us

Writer and performer Adam Peck has spent much of this year performing his one-man show, Only in and around Bristol in schools, pubs, community centres and theatres. During this local tour, Peck picked people up along the way and, as a result, Only Us was born.

The audience sit in wooden chairs, arranged in a rough circle so that most faces in the room are visible to all. Peck moves around the audience as if moving around parts of his life, introducing - and talking to - his parents, neighbours, longed-for siblings and imaginary friends, each represented by an empty chair.

What's striking about this piece is, despite its heavily autobiographical texture, the absence of any sense of self-obsession. Peck makes it clear from the outset that he is interested in telling the truth about his life and the people in it. Often the truth about our lives is prosaic and colourless. In our realities, there is little room for the narcissism of performance and it's obvious that Peck is unafraid of this; the show starts before the technician has dimmed the lights and even before a final check for late comers has been made, which Peck does himself a few minutes in, these details adding to the strange combination of intimacy and the mundane.

Peck is frank yet somewhat reserved in his delivery; he shares stories about his childhood and the relationships therein. He often refrains from giving away his feelings, although there is a palpable sense of, not so much loneliness but aloneness (?)  throughout his performance and there is a very tender moment towards the end of the first half of the show where he shares a more recent and demonstrative anecdote about the kindness of friends when the darkness creeps in.

The second half of the show is devoted entirely to the stories of the people borrowed from Peck's travels. The sense of space in the room is very apparent now, and it's a generous sense of space, as if the audience has been subliminally invited to silently join in. The performances are emotive and urgent although there is still the absence of any kind of showiness which, in a way, is hard to understand. But then, it becomes clearer why this might be: they're shy, and slightly guarded. And why is this so? Because they're just people, in a room, speaking the truth to other people in the room about their actual lives, about feeling alone and sad and disgusting and guilty and grief stricken and scared. This is a hard thing to do. We rarely do this with the people we trust.

This piece has been delicately directed; it seems each performer was given just about enough direction to propel them into the space to speak as candidly as possible without the safety net of acting. And they're not spilling their guts, either. They speak to the room quietly, each with an air of self-acceptance which is aspirational and brave.