Housing officer Brian features in Channel 4's How To Get a Council House. Photo: Channel 4
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Channel 4's How to Get a Council House is infuriating and compassionate by turns

Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham?

Not Safe for Work; How to Get a Council House
Channel 4

Two episodes in and the jury is still out on Not Safe for Work (Tuesdays, 10pm), Channel 4’s new comedy-drama in which a clever, sardonic and mildly despairing civil servant called Katherine (Zawe Ashton) is sent by her bosses from London to Northampton to work in what looks like an out-of-town branch of Staples on a futile project known as “the Immigration Pathway”. The cast is great and I do like the “austerity Kafka” vibe: its emotionally and financially precarious characters are stymied by management-speak as if by shackles.

But the writing: it’s so uneven. Katherine’s loser colleagues – the coke-head Danny (Sacha Dhawan), the super-square Jenny (Sophie Rundle) – are so cartoonish that her lowly new position among them seems utterly implausible. Then there’s the question of tone. One minute, she’s taking the mickey. “Did they not have any Calippos?” she asks the infantile Danny, finding him in the car park with two ice creams in his hands. The next, she’s having a flashback to the baby she lost before her divorce. The sadness and the clowning seem sometimes to belong to different shows entirely.

Still, I will keep watching. I approve mightily of Katherine, who isn’t entirely adorable; my crusade on behalf on unlikeable female characters, whether on TV or in books, is ongoing, despite some fairly hairy experiences at recent literary festivals (oh, how the lady readers out there want women characters only to be “nice”). I love the way she calls her Joe Root-lookalike ex Anthony (Tom Weston-Jones) a “total bell-end” to his face and in front of the entire office. It pleases me no end that she loves her job (Northampton posting aside) and is good at it. When she demolishes Danny’s crummy ideas – he has suggested that the Home Office buys a lot of tents for new immigrants, what with camping being such a very British pastime – it’s like watching a stoat swallowing a vole. She’s magnificent.

There’s something else going on here, too, which is that while I watch Not Safe for Work, I experience a kind of retrospective Schadenfreude. The series reminds me forcefully of my twenties, when I, too, was at the mercy of human resources (or, as we used to call them in journalism, that “bitch/bastard on the news desk”). Thanks to this, I’m filled with gleeful relief whenever Katherine and the others gather at some half-empty taco place to toast God knows what. Oh, the misery of office drinks with your rivals, your boss and your office crush. Oh, the loneliness of your first job: the boredom, the fear, the penury. If Katherine doesn’t sleep with someone highly inappropriate soon – my money’s on Nathaniel (Samuel Barnett), who looks about 12 and wears his political correctness like a neon sign – I’ll eat my novelty pencil sharpener.

Channel 4’s specialities right now are comedy-dramas and the kind of documentaries about the poor and dispossessed that make some cross and others roll their eyes and wonder why IDS, George and Dave don’t hurry up. How to Get a Council House (Mondays, 9pm) is its latest offering in the latter vein and, yes, it’ll make lots of people boil with rage. Me? Let’s see. Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham? (I’d rather not be Andy Burnham.)

In Portsmouth, Britain’s most crowded city, a couple complained to their housing officer, Billy, that their landlord had threatened them with eviction. When Billy, having spoken to the landlord, who was unhappy with the state of the property, came round to tell them that if they’d only clean up the dog shit in the yard and apply a little elbow grease to the bathroom and kitchen, all would be well, what he got was abuse and indignation. These two followed a racist – “Muslims, Pakis . . . If you’re white, English [like us], you should be first in line!” – and a woman who said she would rather make her children homeless than live in a second-floor flat. Truly, the only thing to do in such moments, left-liberal-wise, was to focus on the saintly Billy and his long-suffering colleagues, who treated everyone the same way: kindly and with great patience. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle