Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Les Miserables

Les Miserables

(Queens Theatre London)

To go and see Les Miserables, like any walk through London’s streets, means running the gauntlet of people asking for money. “Les miserables” ( a powerful word inadequately translated as “the poor”) People so poor in many cases they have given up hope.

Inside the warmth of the theatre you are surrounded by comfortable and respectable people watching a brilliant colourful musical about the poor people outside in the street.

And the musical, based on a two-volume 19th Century novel by Victor Hugo, is not miserable at all because it contains within it a message of hope that things can be changed.

It is worth comparing the revolutionaries in Les Miserables with those other revolutionaries in a 19th Century novel – the bloodstained monsters depicted in Dickens’ “a Tale of Two Cities.” Although the revolution of 1830 was defeated, Victor Hugo sees the revolutionaries as human beings and evokes sympathy for the cause for which they are fighting.

To say it is a revolutionary musical would be pushing it. It is a musical about revolution and about the appalling injustices of society but the message of the musical and the book is about individual salvation through love.

The central character Jean Valjean is imprisoned for five years for stealing a loaf of bread, then another 14 for trying to escape (not an exaggeration of the penal code of the period). On release he is condemned to carry a yellow passport – an ID card which is as effective as a brand – even outside the prison he is not free.

A priest who takes the message of Christianity seriously (and thus has no future in the Church!) seeks to redeem him with an act of kindness and (without retelling the whole story) the narrative rests on the consequences of that act of kindness.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the original story is the casting of a policeman, a perfectly respectable upholder of the law with no sympathy for the poor, as a villain. We are accustomed to seeing “crooked cops” but he isn’t crooked, he is as straight as he can be according to his lights. He simply enforces an unjust law because it is not his place to change it. He would be at home in the modern Labour Party wouldn’t he?

The most powerful scenes involve the street fighting in Paris during the 1830 revolution and the idealism of students and young people who are depicted as simply and selflessly fighting for the poor of their own city.

“Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!”

Without the music the words give you some idea of the emotions stirred by the powerful song. I am aware that people talk cynically about “not a dry eye in the house” but it really is an accurate description of how people in the audience respond to this.

In the final scene the selflessness is rewarded when with Les Miserables they ascend to heaven. Dickens, for all his compassion, would have had them going to the other place!

And at the end of the play you walk back to the tube station. There are people bedding down for the night in cold wet shop doorways. It would take a revolution to put an end to this injustice.

“At the end of the day there's another day dawning
And the sun in the morning is waiting to rise
Like the waves crash on the sand
Like a storm that'll break any second
There's a hunger in the land
There's a reckoning still to be reckoned and
There's gonna be hell to pay
At the end of the day!”

By Derek McMillan
Tuesday, 27 December 2005

Monday, December 26, 2005

Technophobia is ignorance

MSN and Technophobia

There was an interesting exchange of views on the TES website triggered off by a teacher who asked for advice on using the instant messaging system MSN with her pupils.

One of the first responses was from a teacher issuing dire warning about a teacher who had been dismissed on the spot for using MSN with a female pupil. When I questioned him further on this improbable story he admitted “I really don't know many more details - second-hand gossip by the time it got to me.”

My point was that you could be dismissed on the spot for speaking to a pupil of either sex – it depends what you say! MSN is not the culprit.

Another objector was a head teacher who expected to control every aspect of “his” staff’s behaviour and believed that any activities they undertake without his express permission ought to be punished. Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.

The sensible advice offered by other teachers included the idea of using the facilities of an instant messaging system to do the following:
1. Keep a complete record of all conversations automatically. No parents (or control-freaky heads) can then take issue with what you have been saying.
2. Block any undesirable callers or keep a list of the only people allowed to access the system – again automatically.
3. Set up a separate email address and messenger identity specifically for this purpose so it is only when you want to chat with pupils about work that you go online with that identity.

For technical reasons Yahoo messenger or ICQ or one of the family of open source messengers which can communicate with all three may be better. I think teachers often need advice on using new technology. They do not need the cold dead hand of technophobia holding them back.

Technophobia is another word for ignorance. Teachers are against ignorance.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Aunty Polly

Every Christmas we retell this heartwarming story:

During the war my family received food from relatives in Australia. Memorably they received a letter and ingredients for a Christmas pudding., Due to a lack of consideration by U boats the letter and the parcel did not arrive at the same time.

Consequently they received the parcel, part of which was separated off in a cardboard compartment and seemed to contain a grey powder. Nothing daunted this was stirred into the pudding and nobody thought anything more about it.

The letter arrived in the new year and contained news of the family, who were all doing well apart from Auntie Polly who had sadly died, "we are returning her ashes for burial in the UK."

Enjoy your Christmas pudding everybody and remember Auntie Polly.

(I was told when I was older that Auntie Polly was an urban myth, but the same brother who told me also said Santa wasn't real so could I trust him?)


The solstice, yes I know it's officially tomorrow. With our ancestors we celebrate the rebirth of the sun - believe me when you are "freezing your ass off" that takes real faith. In the UK the sun is often veiled in mist and mystery.

("freezing your ass off"? Is that as bad as the fate of the proverbial brass monkey?)

Without any accurate clocks it must have been a bugger knowing when the solstice actually was. Well you could always pop down to stonehenge to check but it is an awfully long way. So people just celebrated for days and days (sound familiar?)

And then somebody decided lets celebrate it on Dec 25th - presumably Virgin trains were writing their timetable.

Whatever you believe you can't help wanting peace on earth, "war is over.... if we want it" and right now we could all do with a bit of goodwill. As I tell my kids, goodwill does not just mean being nice to people you liked in the first place :)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Battleship Potemkin

Battleship Potemkin was on BBC4 last night. I thought
they were pushing the idea of having repeats for
Christmas to the limit with a 1925 film. Then I
watched it for a bit and ended up watching the whole

It was a film Hollywood could not have made and couldn't make today. The corporations would not be happy with the whole idea. Eisenstein could experiment with
technique and make a silent black and white film come alive. The actors (and they were not all actors, some were members of the public roped in by his enthusiasm)
have to express themselves without words and put across a story which can be understood in any language.

And what a story! The sailors have to suffer appalling conditions and lack of food; their officers lie to them and meet discontent with brutal repression. In the end the sailors outrage finds a focus when the vicious Tsarist officers put a tarpaulin over the heads of some rebel sailors and orders the marines to shoot them. This is too much for the sailors and they appeal to the marines to think about who they are shooting and they rebel. The leader of the revolt is killed but his death becomes the focus of solidarity and revolution in Odessa.

Even eighty years after the film and a century after the events it depicts it is still a moving tribute to the men and women who took the first faltering steps towards the revolution of 1905 and it the last reel accurately portrays their apprehension and anxiety and then their joy and enthusiasm at their successes.

It was the last time Eisenstein had complete cotrol over one of his films. His next film October was cut by about a third as Stalin sought to rewrite history so that Trotsky did not appear and Lenin was made to sound like a Stalinist!

I doubt if they will show it on American TV, but you can download it from the internet and there are various sites which have streaming video which let you watch the film for free.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

working class representation

An open meeting to discuss the crisis in working class representation
Saturday 21st January 2006, 12 - 3pm. Friends House, Euston Road, London. The 2005 RMT Annual General Meeting passed a motion calling on the union to organise a conference to discuss working class representation. Speakers include: Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, Tony Benn, John McDonnell MP, Colin Fox SSP, John Marek AM & Cllr Dave Nellist. All are welcome.

RMT website

Saturday, December 10, 2005

We do not torture suspects - Condoleeza Rice

According to Democracy now (www.democracynow.org) the US radio and TV show:

"New details are emerging in the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi -- the detainee whose faulty claims on links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The New York Times is reporting government officials have acknowledged al-Libi fabricated his claims to avoid harsh punishment while in Egyptian custody. Al-Libi was handed over to Egypt by US agents in January 2002. The Times notes the disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of detainees."

Torturing suspects may not give you the truth, but it will give you the answers you want to hear.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Chestnuts roasting by an open fire

A poster on the TES website has resurrected the old chestnut about pupils not spelling properly because they do not talk proper like what we does!

Darling if you don't talk properly how can you possibly spell properly? Probably because our spelling does not accurately reflect the way we speak

dahling if u dont talque properlee howe kann u possiblee spel propperly? Proberbly becos hour spelling duz not akurately reflekt the weigh wee speek.

I am not sure it is possible to resurrect a chestnut now I think about it.

Season of Goodwill !

On December 6 at Valley Heights Mall, a shopper flew into a violent rage, claiming that the mall's Santa Claus, insulted her. He told reporters: "I was greeting the children with my traditional ho ho ho, and some deranged woman went off on me."

She shouted "Who are you calling a ho? Fat man!" and attacked him with a giant candy cane until restrained by a couple of elves. And the woman's name? Gina Crank. You couldn't make it up.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Union Learning Rep

I went on a training course at the NUT training centre Stoke Rochford 28 November to 02 December. The course was demanding but excellent.

Union Learning Rep is a new role and hopefully a useful one which involves organising lifelong learning for people who are teaching. If teachers don't believe in learning for its own sake then who does?

Too often the courses organised for teachers are punitive - "you
are failing, this CPD will put you back on track for the government's latest wheeze". As you would expect *our* training courses are very different and aim to
empower teachers and bring back some of the joy of teaching.

Organising CPD for teachers (the initials stand for Continuing Professional Development not some method of artificial respiration) is an additional way to involve them in the union and continues and extends the role of the trade unions as educational bodies and advocates for education.
Details here

The other strands to the role are lifelong learning, learning things which are of use or interest to the learner rather than directly to the employer; and of course promoting the training of union health and safety reps and other union officers.

All the government waffle about excellence is just boasting. Teaching is more about doing the best for your pupils in difficult cicumstances.

Anyway I have now been "certified" - many say it should have been done long ago!