Released without charge: Gerry Adams with Northern Ireland's deputy FM Martin McGuinness on 4 May. Photo: Getty
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Arresting Gerry Adams, the problem with Venezuela, and beating poverty… with maths

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

What was the point of the Northern Ireland police arresting and holding Gerry Adams for four days over a murder that happened 42 years ago? A conviction would be impossible to obtain. Using a Diplock court (sitting without a jury) would be unthinkable for such a high-profile case. Few potential witnesses would be willing to give evidence and few jurors willing to convict, either because they regard Adams as a liberation hero or because they still fear the IRA. Mainland press commentators who insist “justice” must be done forget that justice is always elusive in a divided society where paramilitary gangs are never far below the surface.

Tony Blair’s peace with the Provisional IRA was a fudge and perhaps a necessary one. Hardline republicans will stick with democratic politics as long as they think it works for them. If it ever ceases to do so, the IRA – or a “rebel” offshoot, which is what the Provisional IRA was in the first place – will reappear. “We haven’t gone away, you know,” a Belfast rally was told after Adams’s arrest. That understanding has underpinned the province’s affairs for 16 years.

There was never a formal amnesty, only a series of nods and winks. Paramilitaries on both sides could do as they pleased in sectarian working-class ghettos. But Northern Ireland’s middle classes could get on with their shopping while business could make profits without inconvenience from bombs. So that’s all right – for the time being. 

Shapps goes Caracas

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, accuses Ed Miliband of favouring “Venezuelan-style rent controls”. I don’t deny there are arguments against controls. But why doesn’t Shapps – who, I suspect, knows even less than I do about housing in Caracas – make those arguments instead of namechecking Venezuela as though that settled the matter? That country is now scarcely mentioned, even in the centre-left press, without words such as “dictatorship” and “tyranny” lurking nearby. Tory papers and politicians bracket it with the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Although it is far from perfect, Venezuela regularly hovers around mid-table in most indices of democracy and human rights. It is singled out because its government is among the few that is recognisably socialist.

What Shapps probably had in mind was a new law that forces some private landlords to sell to their tenants at a “fair price” determined by the government. Which reminds me of the Right to Buy policy that the Tories forced on local council landlords. 

Everybody hates Tony

Et tu, Philip? The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens, one of Tony Blair’s more respectful biographers, wrote a startling column the other day about the former PM’s “single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches”. Stephens has always argued that Blair’s intentions in Iraq were honourable and still thinks he was “a better prime minister than history will probably allow”. But he now says no other political leader has been so “diligent . . . in the sullying of his own reputation”. He accuses Blair – who recently called for the west to ally with Russia and China against Islamists – of “ahistorical and simplistic analysis”.

It is a measure of Blair’s fall that even the judicious Stephens holds him in such contempt. Some Labour people still call themselves Blairites but it will soon rival Stalinist or Maoist as a label to be avoided.

A problem halved

Rejoice. Global poverty – defined as the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has nearly halved, from 19.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. Moreover, this fall happened overnight, just the other day. How? Not, alas, because some hedge-fund manager hired helicopters to drop dollar bills across Africa and Asia but because the World Bank has recalculated. Instead of using currency exchange rates, it has switched to purchasing power parity – which tells you what $1.25 will buy in different countries. Goods are usually cheaper in poor countries so a little goes a long way and, as the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles, puts it, “Many of the world’s poor are not as destitute as we had imagined.” That is a convenient conclusion for the World Bank, a body that imposes “structural adjustment” on developing countries, meaning less welfare and fewer public services.

Jurassic snark

My old friend Simon Heffer, trailing his new book, Simply English, writes in the Daily Mail: “To describe someone with outdated attitudes or opinions as a dinosaur is now a cliché.” It presumably wasn’t a year ago, when Heffer, commenting on an NS interview with the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, wrote: “The roar of the dinosaur . . . echoes again.”

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.