Universal Credit – Reasons to be Tearful.
A compendium of comment, analysis, advice, information, and the government’s doubleplusgood press releases on Universal Credit
The nature of this blog will in some way be defined by my technical inability to refine it as I might like, so, new stuff will be inserted at the top, in the “Breaking, Breaking, This Just In” section till it becomes old stuff. I will try to keep what I see as the most informative and important items for claimants fixed after that at the start. This will inevitably lead to a fractured narrative flow but hopefully it will still be a helpful resource for anyone trying to negotiate their way through Universal Credit, a government initiative that has every chance of becoming one of the most monumental welfare cluster fucks of the modern era.
Breaking, Breaking, This Just In:
Children’s Society Report on how Universal Credit Penalises the Poor:
Child care component – unclear, unfair, unworkable…
Esther McVay on Benefit Sanctions:
Esther McVey says on benefit sanctions “What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same times they are wanting your best interests at heart. They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”
So giving a child lines is equated to removing their ability to buy food for their children, heat their home and fund transport to look for work to name but three. Its hard to tell if this is satire or reality. (oh no its not satire – its from the mouth of a Tory) So stop peoples benefits to make them get a job? Surely they are more likely to spend their time queueing in a food bank – or walking everywhere – stopping peoples money does not make them more employable, nothing like starving for 3 days to put you in the right positive frame of mind to impress at a job interview. This really is the most idiotic thinking I have ever seen by a government.
STOPPING BENEFITS JUST MAKES PEOPLE FEEL DESPERATE, DEPRESSED AND UNEMPLOYABLE YOU FOOLS!
House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts
Universal Credit: early
There have been thousands of words written about the immense waste of public money, the abysmal management of the IT, the blame game that followed, and the “quiet man” turning the volume from down to completely off. Well nothing quite delivers the truth in all its raging glory better than the original report which available from the link below.
Sadly it seems the mainstream tv news channels did not seek to expose his staggering hypocrisy and ineptitude that would have got anyone else the sack.
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/619/619.pdfMore on the subterfuge and possible cover up of the Universal Credit IT fiasco:
Iain Duncan Smith’s second epiphany: from compassion to brutality
Of all the great comment on this subject, this perhaps captures the mendacious pernicious inhumanity visited upon the claimant than this by Poly Toynbee:
A New Government Infographic About Universal Credit:
This is actually such an appallingly oversimplified depiction of reality it is actually funny, anybody know how James eats, lives and looks for work in the six weeks it will take him to get his first payment of Universal Credit?
Safe pair of hands not looking quite so safe:
More from Computer Weekly here:
Universal credit: £120m could be written off to rescue welfare reform
Labour says ministers in disarray as leaked documents reveal two options for saving project to merge benefits and tax credits
Anyone who has looked at the criteria (further down page) for claiming UC in the “rollout” zones will have to have concluded that it is hard to see how it is anything but a “rollout” in name only, with only the most simplistic of cases being dealt with by UC – one can almost see each claim being supervised manually to ensure it does not add to the huge maladministration statistics of the DWP.
Almost worth a caption competition?
“Well minister can you show us how far Universal Credit is from total disaster?”
Guardian Editorial Comment on the above revelation.
The audacity of Arrogance:
An insight into why this blog is here, how UC is already affecting the most vulnerable in our society:
This is initially just a collection of links, with a human intervention to avoid the repetition one normally gets from google searches – hopefully containing a synopsis of their content, or just a little snark and bile. There are some brilliant articles about this monumental change to the delivery of Social Welfare payments and effects that it may have. I intend to try to link to both government “information” publications and any media coverage or comment. I will endeavour to try to avoid repetitive and/or tautological links to debate or comment. Though that is possibly unavoidable at times. It is not historical due to the constraints of time so is hopefully current from the beginning of November 2013. PLease feel free to post in the comments anything I have missed – and most importantly feel free to use anything on here for any article, tweet, blog or whatever. Iain Duncan Smith is spearheading this, a man whose tongue is so forked he has a cutlery tray where most of us have a mouth – everything said about UC needs to be forensically examined and discussed. Any legal challenges need to be publicised – anyone victimised by UC needs to know there are commentators watching that can publicise their situation. It appears to me that it is not the Devil that is in the detail – but the multifarious spawn of Satan. There are many deeply flawed hidden changes in the legislation – that appear to be being slowly and surreptitiously revealed. I hope this blog will do a little to shine some light into the dark dank corners of this legislation.
Lest We Forget the Man With The Plan:
So to start a brilliant analytical briefing paper on Universal Credit in pdf form.
It explores the potential effects on the self employed, in a most insightful and detailed way, and the main reason I am writing this now, it is an essential read for anyone with even a general interest, it points out many of the problems deep with in the legislation that will affect all UC claimants – and the first place where I have see many of these flaws identified:
Great facebook page with many informative links about Universal Credit and the self-employed:
The Government Information Sheet on Universal Credit and self-employment
and a more accurate assessment:
Latest government fact sheet about other changes to other benefits as well as UC:
Next a lovely government information sheet that actually demonstrates how far they are from fully implementing it .
Crisis, what crisis? I have to cut and paste one part of this just so it does not get missed. It is called eligibility, there should be a prize if you can guess how many people are able to claim once all these caveats have been negotiated – not many I would think. Remember this when we hear talk of a successful trial:
To be eligible to claim Universal Credit (as opposed to existing benefits), you must:
• live in a specified postcode area but not be homeless, in supported or temporary
accommodation nor a homeowner
• be single, with no dependent children, a British citizen and aged between 18 years and 60
years and 6 months
• be fit for work
• not have a claim to Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance
(ESA) that ended in the last two weeks, except where ESA ended due to a decision that
you no longer have limited capability for work
• not be pregnant nor have given birth within the last 15 weeks
• not be receiving existing benefits (JSA, ESA, Income Support, Housing Benefit) or Tax
Credits nor awaiting a decision on, nor be appealing against, a decision not to award any
• not be in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payment
• not have savings in excess of £6,000
• not have any caring responsibilities
• not be self-employed, in education nor have a person acting on your behalf over your
• have a valid bank account and National Insurance Number.
If you are in employed work and do not have take home pay over £270 per month (if aged
under 25) or £330 per month (if age 25 or over), you may also be eligible to claim
above quote from this document here:
The most recent Lords debate:
it appears that if you can get a building project completed on time you can oversee the biggest change in welfare ever seen and deal with its manifold I.T. complexities: “We now have Howard Shiplee on board, and he is immensely experienced. He produced the olympic Park” Oh, so thats ok then, I feel completely at ease now.
The Lords live, UC from 21 minutes in:
Lord Freud providing the perfect exemplar of “mealy mouthed”
Reservation about UC from Chartered Institute of Taxation:
Reservations from The Work and Pensions Committee:
Good blogs highlighting some potential hidden problems:
Gingerbread find much of concern: “It’s worrying to see that single parents will, on average, be worse off under universal credit than they are now,”
The Gingerbread report in full:
A detailed report on the impact of Universal Credit from the Social Market Foundation:
“Our findings – set out in Chapters 4 and 5 – indicate that some
aspects of the Universal Credit are likely to prove unhelpful for a
significant number of claimants. In particular the monthly payment
and the payment of Housing Benefit to social tenants will require
behavioural change if the new system is not to cause serious
problems for many.”
A useful, but very lengthy document, (2,165 pages to be precise) the decision maker’s guide, could be very useful if considering an appeal ( a sample: “A decision not to revise is not appealable, but its effect may be to renew the appeal rights arising from the original decision”)
Advice for Decision Making (ADM) provides guidance on the following benefits
introduced in April 2013:
Universal Credit (UC)
Personal Independence Payment (PIP)
New-style contribution-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) in accordance with the
Welfare Reform Act 2012
New-style contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in
accordance with the Welfare Reform Act 2012.
What the National audit Office said:
( I’ll give you a clue “The programme suffered from weak management and ineffective control.”)
No one is safe – actors to be hit by UC changes:
Good commentary on IDS and interesting FOI request in this blog:
The Claimant Commitment & Sanctions Section:
“When you claim Universal Credit you will need to accept a Claimant
Commitment that sets out your responsibilities. You may be required
to look for work, prepare for work, or to increase your earnings if you
are already working.” by
“You will work with your Universal Credit adviser who will help you to assess your skills and
get training that will improve your chances of finding a job.”
The very same people who are in the jobcentre now: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
I can see the Claimant Commitment part of Universal Credit becoming a separate blog article but for the moment it will have to sit at the bottom of this one. It looks to be a small alliterative phrase that is going to become a huge bone of contention.. There are 2 excellent blog articles at the end of this paragraph and also a Guardian piece about the amount of job vacancies relative to those seeking work. (quite why this is never mentioned when Gideon starts ranting about feckless workshy individuals i’ll never understand.)
Brilliant blog detailing what ludicrous reasons are already being used to sanction people, I defy anyone to read this and not get hugely angry:
just a few of the reasons people have had their only source of income stopped:
Been told you have to give a phone number or an email address or get sanctioned?
What your MP gets told about the housing benefit component”
Venice: Fewer Miles of Canals Than Birmingham But Far More Gondoliers.
The one city I’ve always wanted to see is Venice – and good fortune took me there for a five-day holiday recently, so here are a few thoughts, reflections and comments on those days. I’ll ramble chronologically to give some form to the outpourings of an unquiet mind. I’ll put a few photographs in the text to illustrate the subject and post the rest at the end for those insomniacs among you to flick through if you’re having a particularly bad night.
The 6:45 flight from Birmingham necessitated a brutally early check in at 4:45 a.m. – this is not helped by the ambience of the duty free and departure area. International brands names, all screaming chrome and blinking neon, repeated ad-infinitum like situationist slogans at a punk convention shouting “buy me or your life will be incomplete” at the sleep deprived traveller from duty free till they emerge into a departure lounge bright as a thousand suns. Perhaps they think we are all going trekking over miles of Arctic Tundra and are preparing us for the effects of snow blindness. The semi-comatose travellers scatter like newly disturbed woodlice into the semi-darkness of the cafes and shops around the perimeter and reach for alcohol, sunglasses and food in that order. The consumer is now all but consumed.
So to Italy and a very quick reminder that we were now indeed in Italy, for as instructed by the ever helpful Marco Polo airport staff we headed for the water bus stop – checked the board to make sure it was the correct jetty – and when a boat that looked like a water bus arrived we duly got onboard along with the other 20 plus tourists on the dock. Venice came into sight and er… went out of sight – the block of flats that appeared on the horizon resembling an up market Castle Vale development from the 1980s turned out to be an cruise liner. Thought the word liner bestows upon it a potential for aesthetic beauty that is akin to calling Ian Duncan Smith a champion of the poor and dispossessed. For this behemoth had all the grace and charm of a breezeblock as it teetered upon the Mediterranean. Soon another appeared and what should have been the elegance of the Grand Canal became the terminal for the cruise ships that disgorge swarms of tourists (1.7 million in 2012) for their box ticking eight hours in Venice where they spend almost 200 million Euros a year. This is not popular with all Venetians there is a link at the end of the blog for those interested in the protest movement: Our waterbus turned out to be a courtesy water taxi that takes the next batch of Euro-sprinklers from airport to cruise ship terminal – no ticket was asked for – and no sympathy was given as we tried to explain out plight. Fortunately we were not the only unwitting tourists who made this mistake as we were told the only way out of the harbour was a private water taxi – a snip at 80 Euros for a one-way trip to the Grand Canal. As we had the apartment key holder waiting for us at midday and it was by now 11:40 our choice was somewhat limited – though upon arrival Evelyn, our key holder informed us you can do the journey for one Euro – so welcome to the sometime venal Venice. Interesting to reflect that this was the last transport we would use till we got the (correct) water bus back to the airport – perhaps it was an unconscious decision – though the only real way to see Venice is to walk and walk and walk, it is perhaps the finest place for urban walking on the planet.
We had a double booking that meant we ended up in a 16th century apartment – close to St Mark’s square (a major upgrade) – with a cardiovascular testing 89 steps up to it. But Venice is not a place for anyone who is not keen on steps (the original title of this blog was going to be “Venice – Italian for Steps”) – there are steps everywhere – up to the bridges – in the museums and galleries – I don’t think I saw a lift till we got back to the airport. So Venice – just as I pictured it – or just as Canaletto pictured it – literally. It soon starts to become almost surreal – like being on a film set – Don’t look Now – Death in Venice among the 60 odd movies set here – from William Shakespeare to Ian Fleming the appeal of Venice has called to authors and playwrights like a siren. It has been home to many artists, explorers, composers and even womanisers (Casanova). It is a living museum – a bit like the Black Country Museum – but its both very real and very much unchanged. It took a little while for me to realise what was so unusual about it. That something is nothing – an almost complete silence save for the odd conversation (American usually – funnily enough) drifting on the breeze, a silence due to the lack of the car. This is just the most important contributor to the preservation of Venice – and it is just brilliant. I know full well the joy of the car but I now also know just how great it is to be rid of the noise and pollution and to see small children running free – no neurotic mothers yelling at them to “come away from the road”. It engenders an urban tranquillity I have never known elsewhere. But Venice is very genteel – if the Daily Mail was to design a society it might well base it on that of Venice. They have somehow culled all the teenagers – gone, as if smitten by some enlightened Herod (proof of this is the fact that I saw not one Grand Canal sign with the ‘C’ blocked out). The only black people we saw were rich American ones. We saw one beggar, no rubbish, no drunks, we were told it was crime free – we felt totally safe walking down the darkest and narrowest of back alleys late at night – for to be a tourist is to be protected by some impregnable force field in Venice – one that just leaves a hole to permit easy access to your wallet – via legal means only – but you don’t feel a thing as you are distracted by the all encompassing delights of Venice. Venice also likes an early night – gazing out over the City at 11:00 pm ours was the only light on – this is a city where you have to put your rubbish out every day between 6:00 and 8:00 am, for to do it later is a crime of some considerable magnitude. Venice is the total antithesis of Naples, a well cultured maiden aunt to the hyperactive ADHD teenager of Naples.
Sunday and time for the culture vultures to start pecking – first, on the recommendation of Evelyn we visited the amazing Palazzo Fortuny to see “An Intimate View of Antoni Tapies a Catalan artist. It featured not only his own work, but also items he had collected himself from Picasso, Rothko, Kline and Pollock as well as many African tribal artefacts. The tapestried grand ballroom being a particular highlight, a great chance to see some works from private collections not often on display in a stunning setting. For those readers that might be considering visiting any or some of the places featured in the blog it might be worth mentioning it seems just about everything in Venice is 10 Euros at least to get in plus whatever guides you choose – for 2 people visiting a number of different galleries it can prove to be quite refreshingly expensive. The exception to this are the churches, many of whom have great art inside – often for free or a small entrance fee of one or two Euro. Then we headed to the Accademia Bridge, as well, you can never had enough steps in your life. The view is one of the classic views of the Grand Canal and great for spending a propitious 20 minutes or so just watching life flow down the immobile waterway. The queue for the Academia Gallery (more later) coupled with the drizzle changed our plans and we headed for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – a highlight of the trip for me. Again no cheap seats here but a brilliant audio guide that gets you right into the art on display – a mixture of biography, influence and meaning. I’m no art critic – I just know what I like – but the Jackson Pollock room was quite intense and I have a new favourite painter in Max Ernst – never really got it off the printed page but hung in context it is simply remarkable. It is not a big gallery but just full of high quality items – we spent hours there – and if you want a break you just wander out to the patio and gaze at the canal, or the erotic (?) statue for a while.
Monday – and we again hit the Academia – a shorter queue as it closes at 2:00 pm on a Monday. Well I have to say it I felt that the attention to detail that made the Peggy Guggenheim Collection such a treat was nowhere to be seen here – the audio guide is at best perfunctory. No English room guides to be seen – we almost missed a couple of the best rooms as they are almost hidden away – there is little in the way of variety – it sells itself as the greatest of the Venetian galleries but is effectively dull and shoddy. Its does have some huge biblical canvases, that demonstrate how for the 15th Century church goer it must have been the equivalent of today going to an Imax cinema. The Academia was sadly disappointing overall, but there are much better galleries to give your Euros too, The Scuola Grande di San Rocco does exactly right, what The Academia gets so wrong.
So the day was saved by the remarkable The Scuola Grande di San Rocco (“Confraternity of St. Roch”) was established in 1478 by a group of wealthy Venetian citizens, next to the church of San Rocco, from which it takes its name.
In 1564 the artist Tintoretto was commissioned to provide a series of paintings for the Scuola — there are at least 40 Tintorettos decorating the interior of this building, all of them with a Biblical theme. It is perhaps the Sistine Chapel of Venice – reasonably priced for what is a remarkable experience. If when entering the magnificent upper floor you are taken aback by all the people walking round looking at antique wood framed iPads fear not – there is a supply of mirrors to save your neck when looking at the ceiling painting, but do be careful not to bump into anyone else likewise engaged.
Tuesday and we thought we’d have look at St Marks Square – world famous for the Tower, Basilica and Doges’ Palace – and the Disneyesque queues. Even having to stand on staging to keep above the flooded square did not deter the determined tourist (that’s not a description of us by the way) for we headed to the The Museo Correr. None of the day trippers seem to bother with this fine museum and art gallery which takes up one and a half sides of St Marks Square, allowing us to enjoy the rich art and history inside, in almost solitude at times. An intriguing mash up that mixes modern art installations next to archaeological artefacts and paintings from all eras. You can even find time to smugly look out of the window on the waterlogged day-trippers below. I’m not saying the famous three sites are not worth seeing – but there is an incredible amount of things to see, so there is always a plan b, c, d, or f in Venice – if you just have to queue for hours, well, you might as well wait for a sunny day to do it.
The evening was spent at my first Opera – by “Musica a Palazzo” (there is a link to their web site at the bottom of the page) performed to an audience of about 70 in a restored palace, it was an education to see opera in such an intimate space. There is a link below for all the details – the people who run it are a delight. I managed to book the wrong night and they sat us down and gave us a free drink while we waited to see if we could get in. If nothing else an evening that demonstrated that Schopenhauer was right when he said “Music is the profoundest of the arts, intelligible yet not capable of translation into our faculty of reason, it expresses nature of all life” For I understood nothing of what I heard while understanding everything. That said, I shan’t be ditching my Clash albums just yet…
So the final day, and as the sun was out we decided to walk the long way round to the Ghetto, aiming to take in a couple of recommended churches first. Most churches close between 12:00 and 4:00 to tourists so that dictated the order of play today. The first was San Zaccaria; The Church is dedicated to St. Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, whose body it supposedly contains. A Doge built the original Church on this site in the 9th century.
The church houses one of the most famous works by Giovanni Bellini, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece. The walls of the aisles are entirely covered with paintings by other artists including Tintoretto, Angelo Trevisani, Giuseppe Salviati, Antonio Balestra, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Palma the Elder and Van Dyck. Eight Doges are buried in the crypt, which was slightly flooded during our visit.
The next church was Madonna dell’Orto mainly for the Tintoretto paintings that grace the interior, including St. Agnes, Presentation in the Temple, Adoration of the Golden Calf, Last Judgement and the Four Cardinal Virtues, all painted during the years 1562-1564. This was said to have been Tintoretto’s favourite church and he was one of several people who took part in the refurbishing of the church during the 1500s. He, his wife, and his two children are all buried inside Madonna dell’Orto.
Then followed lunch at Ostaria Da Robia and the only truly great meal we had, this was off the beaten track but worth searching out. Most food is ok, good even – but priced at would be fine dining prices in England. This came from another recommendation from Evelyn and was one of the best meals I have ever eaten.
So to the Ghetto, I will say little about this, as this is getting to be an unintentionally epic blog – and there is much about the history of this area on the web. For me and my Shakespearian pretentions it was a crucial part of Venice to see. It is way smaller than I had ever thought. Trying to imagine 5000 people living in the tiny tenements really gives you a feeling of how they were treated – floors were put in between other floors to make more living space. To make matters worse they were confined as if in prison between sunrise and sunset. Only freed of this unjustified nocturnal incarceration by Napoleon after he invaded. It certainly adds another dimension to Shylock’s character and attitude in the play. The museum is small, and does not take long to see but the Synagogue tour is a must. The guide was knowledgeable and very funny – you tour three Synagogues, two that date from the 16th century. They supply the males with a Kippah so you can conform to their religious convention.
We finished by doing what is such a joy in Venice, walking. This time via the Rialto Bridge – getting there just as the sun descended – at that time there is only one thing to do –order two Campari Spritzers and watch the world go by accompanied by the tamest posing very Italian sparrow I have ever seen as the light that so fascinated Turner slowly faded to black.
So walking in Venice – you will get lost – guaranteed. It is a perfectly designed maze – you can see no sky line features to orientate you, the way the alleys dog- leg back and forth means you have the directional abilities of a blindfolded child spun round before a game of hide and seek. That is part of the fun, but if you need to be somewhere for a time just buy a street map, they are amazingly accurate and there are signs so you can locate your position. If you are lost and map less, remember Venice is like two jigsaw pieces and the Grand Canal runs along the join. So you soon find something to follow. But also remember your only means of transport is your feet or an 80Euro Gondola ride, so don’t end up exhausted at wrong end of Venice
A few final random thoughts – there are mask shops everywhere – and manufacturers workshops – there must be hundreds of thousands of them all over, yet in five days of walking I did not see one person in a mask shop – not one purchased – not one person walking round with one in a bag – weird.
Gondoliers – they are down to their last 400, they see to be the Venetian equivalent of the archetypal London cabby. I think the minimum cost is now 80 Euros for an hour. I never saw any occupants of a gondolier look anything but sullen as the Gondoliers float along generally texting or smoking or shouting at each other as if the tourists were invisible. When business is slow they put on their Boaters, smarten up and tout for business in the squares looking mournful.
The great irony of Venice is that it came into existence as a refuge for the Italians from the invading Germanic tribes and the Hun, but now its total raison d’etre is tourism – which is its only industry of any note and many of those tourists are descendants of the very people it was built to keep out. Five weeks is not long enough to see Venice let alone five days, so go if you can, but plan carefully what you want to see, its expensive but it is worth it.
Last Thoughts on Steven Jump 1957 – 2013
It’s not very often you can remember the first moment you met someone 37 years after the event – but the memory of the first time I set eyes on Steve is indelibly imprinted upon my mind – a moment when in 1976 the 20 year old me saw someone I just had to get to know. He was on top of a dining table, one of many in the 800 seat holiday camp dining room where Kiwi Steve and I had just started work. He was dressed like Keef would be if he worked as a waiter for Pontins Holiday Camps – rock-n-roll boho catering chic – topped off, or bottomed off, by a pair of monkey boots. I remember the boots because Pete Townsend of the Who always wore a pair. The reason I thought of that was Steve was in mid air above the table, doing a perfect impersonation of Pete Townsend – windmilling imaginary power chords – jumping in the air – legs curled – the wild haired boy from freecloud – or Cheltenham as it turned out. And oh, what a friend he turned out to be.
I had met a friend for life – who changed my life and in turn our close friends Paul’s life as well – for we both drove on the road he built – he gave us the keys to the universe – or at least to the “glamour” of the music business. We had many rock n roll adventures together – the road to excess on the road to rock n roll led us to many fun places – and occasionally the gates of paradise, or was it the doors of perception? Ok the doors of the Bayshill Inn, it didn’t really matter where it was because being with Steve was above all: just the best fun.
His intellect was paired with a wit he could use with the speed of a gunfighter, I can not remember the exact moment he said this but have never forgotten what he said, but lets assume he had just been given a derisory tip after waiting on a “punter” at Pontins for a week, he looked at the money and just said “an altruistic gesture of magnanimous proportions” turned on his heel and left the baffled punter wondering if he was pleased or pissed off.
He loved good food with a passion – so when a crowd of us were heading to the Bayshill and a car full of teenage lads stopped and asked, “can you tell us where McDonalds is please” Steve wandered over, duly gave them directions and as they sped off turned to us, pointed to them over his shoulder with his thumb and with perfect comic timing and disdain just deadpanned “Gourmets”
I loved discussing music with him – no one I have ever met knew more – and could use that knowledge to be profound, erudite and hilarious all in the same sentence. This was a skill that went beyond music – film – food – politics – theatre – literature – it even went as far as football. For I know nothing of the beautiful game – and most conversations on it are like aural Mogodon to me, however, even a football conversation with the addition of Steve’s wit and insight became enthralling entertainment.
Rock n roll snaked through Steve like a main circuit cable plugged straight into Keef, I have never known anyone so passionate about rock n roll. As all his many friends and family poke over the embers of his memory till they glow bright and true, others will tell of his greatness, kindness and humanity – but we will all come to the same conclusion – his passing has left a hole in the world so enormous that it will never be possible to fill.
I think it is also fair to say I will never forget Steven’s final goodbye, from the opening bars of All Down The Line as we filed into the Chapel – to the last glass of red at 3am – it was the most memorable of days. If it was a gig – and it was closer to a gig than anything else as an emotive experience – it was the Stones in ’73, it was Dylan in’75, it was The Clash in ’78 – it was simply unforgettable – just like the big man himself. It would be unfair to single out any one moment out of so many so precious, but to make mention of his brother Philip – a friend of us all, who delivered a moving and funny tribute under the most exacting of emotional circumstances – that was, as Steven would have said: “monumental”.
“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are only consequences.”
Becoming X is the latest production from the visionary Recre8, a Psychology based Drama Company. While it has nothing much to do with either sneakers or pimps, it has much to do with the trials of becoming the unknown person that is your future self. The most important thing it has do with is the rehabilitation of young people, those who have become immersed in gang culture, or crime in some way and have been subject of a court order, or are rehabilitating ex-offenders. Recre8 are an organisation that run a range of programs that are aimed at enabling young people to explore their issues in an emotionally safe environment and to heighten their awareness about the consequences relating to their offending behavior and in doing so create some great theatre. The cast was a mixture of young people from Birmingham Youth Offending Services and full time drama students, who work together on the creative process that has produced this drama.
The Custard Factory Theatre was the ideal space to showcase the latest Recre8 production, an intimate theatre, enthusiastically overflowing with people like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon. The over-full house only added to the anticipation and brought audience and actors closely together in a claustrophobic darkness – creating a sense of confinement that totally suited the themes of the drama, a drama that played out in an atmosphere that crackled like a loose earth.
The creation of the play began in the crucible of improvised drama workshops, where some of the cast were given potential scenarios and the resulting sketches were worked on by professional script writer Matt Ford who developed these ideas and fashioned them into the cogent narrative that is at the heart of Becoming X .
The action takes place in various locations that are signified by few props that are little more than impressionistic touches, a bus stop here or a desk there – but this adds to the pace of the drama, as we swiftly move from prison cell to bedroom, to bus stop, to yard, and all to soon, back to prison cell again. All this happens seamlessly due to the adroit stage management of Tyrell – one of the actors from the previously reviewed Hurt film. The overall standard and slickness of the performance is testament to the hard work of all involved and the effort put in during 6 full days of rehearsals prior to the performance.
We first meet X on his release from prison for dealing drugs and watch as with depressing inevitability as, like tick follows tock, he soon falls back in with his old gang. But life suddenly becomes even more complicated as he finds out his estranged girlfriend, (who has ignored his attempts to contact her while he was incarcerated) is now the mother of a baby boy, the father of whom is a mystery he is anxious to solve. As he battles to rejoin society the awful truth of the stigmatisation his offending behavior has caused slowly becomes apparent, as he faces rejection by most employers and has to operate under a strictly monitored Jobcentre regime that only serves to enhance his feelings of helplessness. The clerk’s final “next” as the encounter ends emphasises the production line of despair the modern job market experience is for so many young people today.
As he finally finds out he is the father of the baby boy we move away from the backdrop of social deprivation and focus on the battle between the two families who compete for his loyalties, one of whom rejects him, his Mother, who starts to see him as a harbinger of trouble and his ex girlfriend who sees him as yet another weak male role model echoing the faults of her missing father, an influence she does not want in her son’s life.
The opposing family are his gang or ‘fam’, the root cause of his two years of imprisonment for dealing drugs; who are soon throwing him a big welcome home party. An internally sycophantic gang of wannabe Croesus kids who dream of getting their own bravura blingsteads and living the life style of their hip hop or Premiership heroes – a similarity that never gets beyond dealing weed and ducking school: the dirt behind the daydream. But what the script does so well is show why the camaraderie of the gang has such appeal when all around you is a sea of alienation and rejection – the banter of the gang has some genuinely laugh out loud moments delivered with great comic timing – the joyous party atmosphere when they are initially together makes it all to clear why the ties that bind do so with such a pervasive puissance.
However, the dramatic equilibrium is soon restored by Nakiece Brade, a drama student who gives an astonishing powerhouse performance as Keira, a rage against the ingénue if there ever was. A performance that exploded like an I.E.D., full of righteous fury: the abandoned mother, ferociously fighting for her baby’s future. But also a performance tempered with nuanced reflection, including a moving and defiant self-written soliloquy that connected to the audience like one of Ali’s left jabs. Though this is also a performance of this energy would not work were it not counterpointed by the equally terrific performance from up and coming actor Curtis Wright, who proves more than capable of demonstrating a cauterising viscous anger, but an anger that is moderated by an over arching bewildered melancholia at his situation, desperately seeking moral redemption – till in the cathartic climax he finally does the right thing for his son, but the wrong thing for the gang.
At the centre of this play are two truly memorable performances by young actors, both with very bright futures ahead. However, these are only possible due to the totally believable and engaging performances of the other actors, some showing great versatility by playing numerous roles, the young people who played the police seemed to really enjoy the experience. It is difficult to single out any other performances due to the high standard throughout, though Barrington had an imposing presence and was utterly convincing as the gang leader. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the performance was the incredible degree of audience participation, (an audience that seemed to be split fairly evenly across gender) and their appreciation for what is at heart a totally feminist drama. No male character has any redeeming features save the ability to mock his brethren in an admittedly very amusing way, except X, who does redeem himself, but only after being put in an emotional headlock by both his girlfriend and his mother. Every male character is a self-serving shallow individual, be it the policemen who bully and pre–judge or the Jobcentre clerk who treats X with utter contempt, or the other gang members who lie and cheat with total disregard or thought about the consequences of their actions. Casual violence is their stock in trade – thoughtless machismo comes off a poor second to the thoughtful maternal strength displayed by both X’s mother and Keira throughout.
It is interesting to speculate if some of the success Recre8 have is due to the “fam” aspect of a gang life being replaced for these young people by being part of an company of actors. It was interesting to observe the symbiotic support they give each other both on stage or off – the odd fluff of a line was always covered by another actor and their communal joy at their success at after show party was great to see.
The most tragic aspect of Becoming X is thankfully not the archetypical Shakespearian one, (where everyone dies in the final scene) but that there is little opportunity for more performances of this thought provoking, dynamic and engaging drama, so, much as I would recommend going to see this play at your earliest opportunity sadly there is little chance to do so.
Up above the grinning Clough,
Sky and land stand hand in hand.
Sullenly waiting fate’s command,
Stone dead, but alive with might,
Grit stone Goliaths growl through day and night:
The squall scoured cheeks of the blackened moor
Scowl and furrow in infinite quest,
“Only Promethium fortune can make us so poor,
Are we by the devil blessed?”
Solemn sepulchres wait on future’s past.
In a graveyard sculpted by Henry Moore,
In steep foreboding, aligned, like bears in a pit.
Clouds threaten and the sky folds black,
The lightning daggered in glinting attack,
Thunder summons with a moribund crack:
It can only to be,
The perfect promontory
From which to see,
The end of days
As this hard land is engulfed by sea.