Minsk 2011

“Harrowing” and “intense” are not words you would usually use to describe a good evening, but Minsk 2011 is the exception. As disturbing as many of the scenes undeniably are, one can’t help but think this brave young company is spreading an important message, and it makes compelling viewing.

I first encountered the Belarus Free Theatre company in 2010, when I was an intern at Index on Censorship. I was moved to tears as they spoke of their terrifying experiences at that year’s Freedom of Expression Awards. So I was moved to support their latest venture, especially when it came to the Young Vic theatre.

Minsk 2011 is a fearless depiction of life inBelarus under President Lukashenko. It takes its name from a bombing on the Minsk underground, which killed 15 people. The government said it was a terrorist attack, but it seems this explanation was not universally accepted.

The cast portray the city as a seedy underworld whose inhabitants lived in fear of the authorities, who make arrests on dubious grounds, without warning. The play opens with a series of examples, such as a man playing a musical instrument, and another waving a rainbow flag. Each is brutally carried off stage, including the final actor who is taken away before he can even say anything.

The people of Minsk seem to breathe fear, and it runs in the water. Even the police are motivated by fear – fear of public rebellion, and of punishment from higher orders. They have all been scarred by their experiences. Another scene begins with a man who says girls find scars “sexy”, before baldly showing the audience his own and explaining how he got them. The one which marked his “first experience with the KGB” was especially chilling.

The company repeat their ironic refrain, “Belarus is sexy”, throughout scenes of prostitution and attempted rape. At one point some use thick rollers to paint a woman’s naked body black then wrap her in paper, whilst the others sing traditional Belarusian folk songs – a stark representation of the suffocation and sexual damage she has suffered.

Their youth makes their disillusionment simultaneously tragic and somehow hopeful. There is still time for them to escape their chains and build new lives.

As my traumatised looking boyfriend remarked, this gave real meaning to the word “catharsis.”

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The Iron Lady

Much like Thatcher herself, Abi Morgan’s latest biopic was always going to divide opinion. Never one to shy away from potential controversy, I chose to watch “The Iron Lady” with a man who describes himself as “liberal”. I was almost disappointed to find that we both very much enjoyed it.   I must confess to having been a little dubious about the casting of Meryl Streep when it was first announced, and did wonder why no British actress could be found to play one of the country’s most famous leaders.

Like so many others, though, I was proven wrong, and glad to be. Streep was luminous in the role, and captured perfectly Thatcher’s immeasurable drive, but also her vulnerability as she struggled to balance family life with political duty and eventually succumbed to dementia.  Much has been made of this aspect of the film. David Cameron apparently felt that it was inappropriate to release the film before Margaret Thatcher’s death and said that: “It’s really a film about ageing, dementia, rather than a wonderful prime minister.” I would be inclined to disagree with that statement, which is why I have no wish to dwell on that here.The film used a number of the major events during her premiership to show how they shaped her political career as well as her personal and professional relationships.

The scene I found most heartbreaking actually took place while she was prime minister. It was the one where Airey Neave, then shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is killed by an IRA car bomb as he leaves the Houses of Parliament car park. Morgan has used a little poetic licence here, since, as Boris Johnson has attested, Margaret Thatcher was not actually in the car park when Neave was killed. This scene did, however, serve to show the closeness of their relationship, and her despair at the “incalculable loss”.

The real Thatcher conveyed this affection through her tribute to Neave, in which she said: “He was one of freedom’s warriors.  No one knew of the great man he was, except those nearest to him. He was staunch, brave, true, strong; but he was very gentle and kind and loyal. It’s a rare combination of qualities. There’s no one else who can quite fill them. I, and so many other people, owe so much to him and now we must carry on for the things he fought for and not let the people who got him triumph.”

Throughout the film she shows a genuine commitment to achieving this goal and upholding Neave’s memory. The freedom to which she refers is one of the key political themes portrayed, and it was central to Thatcher’s policies. From the beginning she was concerned to empower citizens and give them the tools to liberate themselves from the yokes of poverty and unemployment. For all the unpopular mistakes she arguably made, we must remember that Thatcher was leading the country at a time of great economic upheaval, which makes this film so relevant in the present climate.

Britain under Thatcher was plagued by the threat of Irish terrorism, much as Islamic terrorism haunts public life today. Aside from the car bomb with killed Neave, the film also depicts the notorious “Brighton bomb” atrocity, which happened at the Conservative party conference of 1984. There is a moment when she fears that her beloved Denis has been killed, and she seems to remember how important he is to her and half realises that he has been forced to live in the shadow of her political ambition.

The film shows the bravery with which Margaret and Denis Thatcher escaped the scenes of horror and destruction in the Brighton attack, and the courage she showed in continuing to promote the policies she believed in, even in the face of violent resistance. Indeed, it is the obvious strength she emanated during her years in power, particularly in the scenes which address the Falklands War, that makes her ultimate fragility all the more tragic.

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Dazed and Confused: Making It Up As We Go Along

Somerset House is looking as beautiful as it always does at this time of year. Its regal Christmas tree, surrounded by deliciously tasteful decorations, makes for a thrilling sight, and its ice rink has become a seasonalStrandlandmark. Its allure has not been lost on an array of celebrities including Lily Cole and Emma Watson, who are known devotees of the rink’s club nights.  However, there is more on offer here than these wintry delights. That is what I love about Somerset House – its ability to host a diverse range of exhibitions and events under one roof and still retain its essential charm.

One of its current exhibitions is an homage to the first twenty years of “Dazed and Confused” magazine, which was established by Rankin and Jefferson Hack in London in 1991. The display is arranged as eclectically as one might expect, as spreads from the magazine appear on angular structures arranged around the room and interspersed with mirrors.

It was the effect of the mirrors which I found especially appealing. There was one point in the room where I could stand, looking at the mirrored edge of a display, and find myself staring into the eyes of a broodingly seductive Kate Moss. This photograph appeared at the end of a line of the magazine’s cover stars. The images were entirely distinctive from each other, but, when placed together, immensely powerful.

The colours which the artists used are intense and vivid, creating a sense of the youthful joie de vivre embodied by their subjects. They seem to have found the perfect combination of style and innovation, which dares the viewer not to be captivated.

The exhibition coincides with the launch of Rankin’s new biannual magazine, “The Hunger”, which is as visually opulent as one might expect. It occurred to me that Rankin has a lot in common with Hollywood’s “Golden Age” portrait artists – he creates icons and truly understands glamour and celebrity – and he presents this with an irresistible vivacity.

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Night of the Imprisoned Writer

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer falls on the 15 November, and this year English PEN marked its thirtieth year by hosting a performance evening entitled ‘Night of the Imprisoned Writer’. The event, which was organised in conjunction with ice&fire theatre, took place at the beautiful Tabernacle in Notting Hill, and took the form of a play followed by some stand up comedy.

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer was established by PEN International in 1981 to recognise writers around the world who have been imprisoned for trying to claim their right to free expression. It is also a time for remembering those writers who have been killed in the pursuit of their work. This year PEN commemorated the 33 writers and journalists who had been killed since 15 November 2010.

Tuesday evening’s event was well attended by an engaged audience, which made for a convivial and inspiring atmosphere. English PEN’s campaigns officer, Cat Lucas, worked with award-winning playwright Sonja Linden to create a moving tribute to the plight of these writers, entitled “Hello Mr Miller, Hello Mr Pinter.” As Cat explained, the piece “weaves together the words of writers we have campaigned for during the last three decades.”

The play was performed by Actors for Human Rights, who read movingly from the letters of writers who have been imprisoned around the world. English PEN produced a very informative programme to accompany the event, which details the stories of each of the featured writers, who were: Liu Xiaobo, Dae Kwon Hwang, Lewis Medjo, Ali Taygun (from whose letter the title was derived), Abdellatif Laabi, Eynulla Fatullayev, Lydia Cacho, Ayat al Gormezi, Philo Ikonya, Alicia Partnoy, Tran Khai Than Thuy and Zargana.

This impressive selection gave a flavour of the cruel punishment being inflicted on writers today, and the host of reasons its perpetrators offer as justification. It also showed the difference that letter writing can make to the lives of imprisoned writers, and English PEN used this to inspire action amongst the audience. Each guest was given a postcard from Penguin books, on which they were encouraged to write a message of support to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo who is serving an 11 year prison sentence over his public calls for political reform.

The interval provided the perfect opportunity to discuss this thought-provoking material over a glass of wine before the stand up comedy began. This part of the evening seemed particularly poignant given that Zargana, a Burmese comedian who appeared in the play and Honorary Member of English PEN, had been released only a month before. The audience were entertained by two comedians – Nick Doody and UK-based French comedian Marcel Lucont.

The evening was an ideal opportunity for interested individuals who wished to discuss the issues and devise potential solutions. The relaxed atmosphere also made it an excellent choice for a fundraising event, and the audience certainly seemed inspired to support the cause. I hope to be able to attend a similar occasion next year.

Originally published on English PEN’s website on 18 November 2011: http://www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/nightoftheimprisonedwriter/


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Cab travel: Privacy no longer an option

As the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking opened in London, Oxford city council was launching its own attack on individual privacy. The council has announced its plans to fit Oxford’s 662 taxis with microphones and CCTV cameras, as a condition of their licensing agreements. Not terribly long ago I was a student and enthusiastic taxi user in Oxford. I am appalled at the thought of conversations I had in them being recorded, not because their content was especially shocking or incriminating but because I viewed them as private.

The official explanation is that this equipment will improve public safety by recording all the violent crime and fare dodging, which the council would have us believe is rife (funnily enough, the relevant crime figures were not available when the Oxford Mail requested them, although drivers claimed to have seen them). This seems unlikely. What they will be recording are the revelations, tears, arguments and passion that punctuate university life. Who hasn’t kissed in a taxi? No one wants to hear that.

As much as the council insists the recordings will only be accessed in relation to a “specific crime or licensing issue” (the limited circumstances provided for in the government regulations), their very existence makes them susceptible to being heard. This leaves taxi riders in an uncomfortably vulnerable position.

Second to their directness, one of the main advantages of taxis over public transport is inherent to that very comparison – they are not public. This is part of the reason why they can charge so much. The back of a taxi is necessarily a confined space, which forces its passengers into close proximity. The natural effect of this is to inspire intimacy and encourage the exchange of confidences. I am not alone in holding that view. Indeed, one of the most compelling pieces I read about the Arab spring recounted the open and frank discussions on Egypt’s uprisings that could be held in the back of an Iranian taxi. The speakers recall Iran’s revolution and express their views freely, without fear of reprisal. For them, the taxi was a sacrosanct.

Whatever protestations Oxford city council may make to the contrary, it is clear that there is an assumption of relative privacy in a taxi. This is obvious from the conversations that are held there, notably those delayed until the door clicks shut. I noticed this particularly during some legal work-experience. With the partition closed and the radio turned up, most lawyers seemed happy to discuss cases in a manner that would be unimaginable on public transport. I appreciated having this time to ask questions and discuss the issues raised in a rare unhurried setting. This would be impossible if we knew our conversation was being recorded.

When we get into a taxi at the end of an evening, we instinctively relax in the knowledge that we will be home soon. The taxi forms a psychological bridge between being “out” and “home”. It may seem like a trifling point, but this is an attractive feature of civilised living. These measures would increase the length of time before you could lower your guard, and create unnecessary unease.

This move represents an unacceptable invasion of that privacy, and the stated aims simply do not justify the means. The microphones would switch on automatically when the key was turned in the ignition andrecord for 30 minutes thereafter. There would be no discretion in this process. These sinister measures make suspects of paying customers. We have come to associate (properly licensed) taxis with safety and comfort. They are intimate spaces where we can tell the secrets we dare not reveal elsewhere. To shroud this harmless custom in disproportionate surveillance would be unforgiveable.

Originally published on Comment is Free on 15 November 2011: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/15/cab-travel-privacy-oxford

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Engagement and Endurance: Kyrgyzstan’s Election 2011

When mass protests erupted across the Middle East this year the West watched in amazement. It was easy to forget that the same thing had happened in Kyrgyzstan a year earlier. In April 2010 the people of Kyrgyzstan ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in a bloody uprising which left at least 90 people dead, and provoked violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups in the south of the country. More than 400 people were killed in the resulting conflict. This was undoubtedly a nation in a crisis.

After the 30th October election eighteen months later, former Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev was named President. The former Soviet state has indisputably come a long way from the violence that ravaged the country last year. The international community has expressed tentative hopes that a viable democracy will emerge from this process. These hopes are fuelled by the successes the people have achieved in exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, both considered fundamental tenets of democracy. Indeed, the interim President Roza Otunbayeva commented on this attitude, trusting that: “People will choose the route of freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly”.

This level of effective political engagement distinguishes Kyrgyzstan from a number of other Central Asian countries whose leaders have ruled unchallenged since the Soviet era. Public protest is virtually unheard of in states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where the press endure extremely repressive censorship, intimidation and violence. In June this year, two Uzbek journalists, Malohat Eshonqulova and Saodat Onomova, were imprisoned and fined 2.94 million soms (around £1000) for holding an unauthorised demonstration. Thus, it is unsurprising that the Uzbek people are deterred from taking such action.

This is not to suggest that Kyrgyzstan is faultless in this respect – indeed the reality is far from it. In August this year, the reporter Shokrukh Saipov was gravely injured after being attacked whilst attending a media seminar. His older brother, Alisher Saipov, was a prominent journalist until he was killed with impunity in 2007. As the Editor of the news website Uz Press, Shokrukh Saipov’s case is particularly significant.

Such websites were targeted during the run up to October’s election, and were banned from disseminating information about the political developments taking place. The official reason provided by Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Committee (CEC) was that “the Kyrgyz law on mass media does not regard web-based news agencies as media news outlets; that is why they cannot generate revenue from the promotion of candidates.”

Such reasoning may seem rather suspect, and could be perceived as an excuse for restricting citizens’ access to information. Although traditional media outlets were allowed to broadcast details of the campaign, it is far easier for the government to restrict these channels through political and financial pressure. Equally, more information can be spread with increased speed to a wider audience through online news sites. This presents a tangible threat to those who would shroud the proceedings in uncertainty. In a country which is ostensibly trying to rebuild a democracy and restore public confidence, such an approach is especially sinister.

Indeed, there are reports which suggest that the election was not carried out fairly, and at one stage the winning candidate’s opponents openly accused him of fraud. One of the opposing nationalist politicians, Adakhan Madumarov, expressed his shock at the “mayhem and disorder” and “unprecedented violations”. With Madumarov potentially alleging misconduct to challenge the electoral outcome, it is difficult to establish the truth when there are such obvious vested interests.

If the official figures are to believed, 60% of Kyrgyzstan’s electorate voted to give Mr Atambayev a majority of at least 63%. If this has been won legitimately, then Kyrgyzstan could well be on the road to effective democracy, but there remain substantial improvements to be made and difficult questions to be answered.

Originally published on Athena’s Forum on 7 November 2011: http://athenasforum.com/2011/11/07/engagement-and-endurance-kyrgyzstans-election-2011/

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Finding chivalry with the Forces

I was saddened to read Michelle Dockery’s statement that the art of chivalry has been lost, “because it’s not the culture any more.” Whilst this may be true for many groups in society, this mindset has not been extinguished completely. We can see this in Harry Wallop’s stance – that he opens doors because it is polite, and not because he doesn’t believe women are capable. This may be controversial, but I think that is entirely appropriate and ought to be encouraged. Dockery is right, in that such behaviour has been in decline, but, again, this is not true of all quarters.

As I read her piece, I felt disinclined to accept its premise unquestioningly, and determined to show that this art has not been entirely lost. Since the word “chivalry” is derived from an Old French word meaning “knighthood”, it is unsurprising that I found my answer with the armed forces. Scoff all you like, but there is more to this than uniforms (alluring though they undeniably are). I was struck by the universal gentlemanliness of the officers I met on Wednesday night (London Poppy Day), whilst selling poppies for the British Legion.

It is an effective marketing technique – who could deny a serviceman asking for donations to help wounded troops? Certainly not any of the girls I know. The Poppy Appeal does tend to inspire an egregiously generous response*, not least because it is an annual collection so the public does not have a chance to grow jaded.  Remembrance Day does also encourage a sense of patriotism which has become unfashionable at other times of year.

That is the same fate which chivalry itself has often suffered. However, I am delighted to report that I was very well treated that night. I have to confess that I was in my element – travelling with a group of RAF officers to a drinks party attended by all the forces. The men did not complain when required to carry multiple boxes of donations and leftover poppies; they walked on the outside of the pavement; they leapt to give up their seats when women approached. Admittedly there were no doors that needed held open, but I feel sure they would have been.

When we arrived, I enjoyed a few pleasant hours of charming conversation with men who appeared both interesting and interested. They all had such fascinating stories of their experiences, which they told only when asked, without arrogance or hyperbole. The way they addressed me was deliciously courteous and respectful, with just one aberration from a man who asked me how old I was (although it transpired he was 19, and thought I was rather younger than I am).

There was an especially lovely moment when a member of the British Legion came round and handed us all thank you gifts – cuff links for the men and beautiful brooches for the women. I turned to the gentleman sitting next to me, who was visibly touched by the gesture. I found this very moving, as we both commented that the Legion could easily have sold our gifts to raise more funds but instead used them to convey their gratitude. Sadly, the men had to leave when their bus arrived, but the departures were typically civilised, and sweetened with hopes that we would see each other next year (and a kiss on the cheek).

Is this, then, an argument for bringing back National Service? That military training teaches values such as respect and courtesy? This is, after all, a question which was widely considered in the aftermath of the riots. I am not necessarily convinced though. That conclusion presupposes that it was the job which improved these men, who could not have possessed such admirable qualities before. It is fallacious to make such an assumption when looking at a self-selecting group, especially since many join the armed forces out of a sense of duty and patriotism which already exists. Contrary to popular belief, chivalry is not dead – you just have to know where to look for it.

*The target figure for this year was £500,000.

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