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The NS Interview: Patrick Stewart

“I’ve nothing but contempt for the phrase ‘We’re all in this together’”

You're playing William Shakespeare in Bingo at the Young Vic. Is that portrayal informed by all the Shakespeare leads you've played?
I have spent so many years - decades - with Shakespeare's words, his poetry, his characters, the plays, in my mouth, in my body, having them pounding around in my system, and continually reflecting on the themes of those plays and who his characters are. All that has just been a preparation for doing this.

Was there ever a point where you thought you wouldn't return to the stage?
Once I'd understood that Star Trek: the Next Generation was not, as everybody assured me it would be, a failure, and that there was every possibility I might see out my six-year contract, I panicked. I'd heard of actors who'd stayed away from the stage for a number of years who'd lost their nerve and never went back. I was horrified that might happen to me. So, in my second season of Star Trek, I began creating a series of one-man shows to get myself back on stage. The only condition was that there would be no other actors, so that I didn't depend on anyone else, and that the whole production could fit into the trunk of my car.

Were you surprised at Star Trek's success?
I wasn't interested in science fiction, which is a source of irritation to many fans of the show. We'd been working for a year before I agreed to go to a convention. As we arrived I asked: “Is anybody going to be here?" I went out to an audience of nearly 5,000 people. Just for that moment, I knew what it felt like to be Sting.

Did you miss England in your 17 years in LA?
Terribly. I loved my life in Los Angeles for a long time, until the homesickness for the kind of work I wanted to do, for the landscape, for friends and family, just became too severe.

Are there any roles you'd still like to play?
In the classical repertoire, some roles have passed me by now - I never played Hamlet, I never played Romeo. But I was never a Hamlet or a Romeo; I was never a juvenile. Almost more than anything, I'd like to do some new work - a play that hasn't been seen before.

Are you still a Labour supporter?
My upbringing, my childhood, my parents' lives, the work that they did, the conditions they worked in, how we lived - all of these things conditioned me to a way of seeing the world. It was, and continues to be, a view of equality of individuals, fairness in our national life. I have always passionately believed that these are aspects of a just society that can only be achieved under the Labour Party.

Would you like to see Labour taking more left-wing positions?
To say "left-wing" would be a simplification of what is needed. I would like to see the party be more aggressive in its policies with regard to the recession and getting the economy stabilised.

What do you think of the coalition?
I have nothing but contempt for the expression "we're all in this together". That's bullshit - we're not all in this together. The members of the cabinet are not in the same position as the people who live near me in Bermondsey. What we have seen is not so much a response to a global crisis but Tory policies as usual, masquerading under the claim of necessity. I find the very fact of the coalition to be a cynical piece of manipulation.

Can theatre have a political impact?
It must have. It is the duty of the arts, wherever it is possible and appropriate, to address political issues.

You are a patron of the charity Refuge. What made you decide to talk about your experience of domestic violence?
I saw this as an opportunity to be of help to women like my mother who often do not see where help might come from and who have no resources. None were available to my mother. On the contrary, I heard a policeman say: "It takes two to make an argument, Mrs Stewart - you must have done something to annoy him." Those things are still said today.

Is there anything you'd rather forget?
Recently in Hollywood I introduced two famous people to one another. They were in fact husband and wife. It shall take a long time to live that one down. They were very nice to me, but I squirm at the thought.

Do you vote?
I do. I didn't take citizenship in 17 years in the United States and therefore could not vote. But it didn't stop me from quietly campaigning.

Are we all doomed?
On the contrary, I see the world becoming, very slowly, not fast enough, a better place. And unless we are hit by the freak asteroid, or global warming wipes us out, I can only see civilisation and society doing better and better. In that sense, working on Star Trek: the Next Generation was a perfect job because Gene Roddenberry [who created the series] thought there was a better world.

Defining Moments

1940 Born in Mirfield, West Yorkshire
1966 Joins Royal Shakespeare Company
1987 Takes on the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: the Next Generation
2000-2006 Plays Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men film series
2007 Title role in Macbeth at Chichester and Gielgud Theatres
2009 Stars as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot opposite Sir Ian McKellen
2010 Knighted for services to drama

Sir Patrick Stewart will play William Shakespeare in Bingo at the Young Vic from 16 February 2012. For tickets: www.youngvic.org

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?