Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead

Music

London Jazz Festival, 9-18 November, various locations

Opening tonight with a "Century of Song" gala at the Barbican centre, this landmark music festival is returning to London for its annual November stint. Exploding across the capital with a seemingly endless line-up of improvised music, this is guaranteed to keep all jazz aficionados positively paralysed with choice. From established performing legends to promising young newcomers, the twenty-odd festival gigs a night promises to show a unique snapshot of all that’s interesting in the world of jazz. Highlights include veritable living legend Herbie Hancock and last year’s Grammy Best New Artist winner, Esperanza Spalding. Jon Snow even takes a break from presenting Channel 4 news to show off his apparently "beautiful voice" in a duet with Mara Carlyle.

Festival

London Storytelling Festival, 9-18 November, Leicester Square Theatre

For the second year running, London Storytelling Festival returns to Leicester Square Theatre for ten days of tales, talks and teaching. Literary fans can hear from award-winning writers and performs, and a schedule of workshops is also in place. Aspiring writers can gain priceless tips from a weekend masterclass with Martin Dockery – seven time finalist in The Moth’s grandslam storytelling championship. Story-writing skills can also be honed at workshops with Sarah Bennetto, including the chance of reading your work live at a showcase. This unique festival sits somewhere between stand-up comedy, spoken word and a literary salon. Billed as ‘a great excuse to be snuggled up somewhere warm with fellow like-minds’, what more could you want from an autumnal evening?

Comedy

Josie Long, 10 November, Soho Theatre

“Hello there! My name is Josie Long and I am 30 years old and that is frankly a little alarming,” explains the three-time Foster’s Award Nominee in the introduction to her new show. Long may not be the first person to find that crossing the triple-decade milestone has put her in a reflective mood, but it's certainly funnier than most people’s. This, the sixth solo standup show from the amiable Oxford graduate, is written following her "political awakening". Not that her newly-found serious subject matter has affected the amount of laughs; critics agree this is the best offering yet from the TV panel show regular. Consisting of a spot of soul-searching, a tinge of Tory-bashing and an earnest contemplation of the frantic need to tick a bucket list in the last months of your 29th year, this show proves that the unstoppable comedian is exponentially increasing in talent.

Art

Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, Somerset House, 8 November - 27 January, 2013

Perhaps the most iconic street photographer of all times, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer of monochrome but endlessly disparaging of the potential of colour photography. This exhibition takes an unusual slant through his oeuvre, re-assessing his influence on future colour photography. Centred around the rare exhibiton of ten extremely little-known works by the master, curator William A. Ewing seeks to find a new lens with which to re-examine the icon. He juxtaposes Carteir-Bresson's work alongside 75 works by 15 international contemporary photographers. The message? A categorical example fo the directionla influence he exerted on the pioneers of the medium he detested.

Theatre

People, National Theatre, until 9 February, 2013

When a playwright has a reputation approaching that of national-treasure status like Alan Bennett, success is almost guaranteed. Indeed, seat for People have been snapped up so swiftly that, unless you’re very lucky, you’ll have to wait a few weeks for the new batch of ticket slots. Following the success of The History Boys, Bennet brings us a new satire on – of all things – the National Trust. Described by Bennet in the preface as “a play for England, sort of” -  this is a story of upper-middle class snobbery descending into family drama. Nicholas Hytner directs.

Herbie Hancock is one of the artists performing at London Jazz Festival (Photo credit: RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage