29 March, 2014

War Horse

We recently went to see an ‘as live’ showing of the play of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’. For those of you who don’t know, the National Theatre Live is a scheme that broadcasts real-time performances of National Theatre productions to cinemas worldwide. The ‘as live’ extension is when those broadcasts (or films) are replayed at times after the live performance.

We very much enjoy going to the theatre, but when the show that we want to see is in London and we want to go en famille, it can be a very expensive pastime. For this reason we jumped at the chance of seeing an as live broadcast of ‘War Horse’ in our local cinema. We didn't know quite what to expect – would it be like being at the theatre or more like a standard cinema experience? Well, there was some attempt at making it seem like you were at the theatre – the cinema screen showed the audience and the speaker system played the sounds of the audience coming from the theatre auditorium before the performance started – but in fact, it really was just like being at the cinema. The view was not straight on to the stage, rather there were a number of different cameras and the view cut between these, much like watching a film. This worked well and must have been difficult to do technically, given the issue of having to work round the audience.

However, what I really enjoyed was the story. I haven’t read any of Michael Morpurgo’s novels before (although my kids have), assuming that they were aimed squarely at children only. ‘War Horse’ tells the story of (aspects of) the First World War through the experience of the horses who were put to work on the battlefield, and it resonates on many levels, highlighting the futility of war, the desperation of those caught up in it, and the effect that war can have on people’s sanity. All are issues very much worthy of adult attention. ‘War Horse’, rather to my surprise, is now on my to read pile.

20 March, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and international cooperation

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing two weeks ago. I guess we all have. The story has a high human interest factor. Not only what on earth can have happened to the flight (my husband and I have spent a good deal of time working through the possible options -- mechanical fault, explosion, hijack, pilot suicide; and one can imagine the Malaysian authorities doing exactly the same thing), but also the empathy that one feels with those left behind. How terribly difficult it must be to plan, to do anything, when you simply don’t know what has happened to your loved ones. As unpalatable as it may be, knowing with certainty that someone has died enables one to grieve, deal with the situation as best one can and, one hopes, eventually move forwards into the future. Not knowing what has happened, however, must make it impossible to know how to act. One must always be holding on to the hope that those people are still alive and will, perhaps, turn up again one day, however vanishingly small that possibility is in reality.

But the thing that strikes me most strongly in all of this is the amount of multi-national effort that is being put into locating a plane that was carrying 227 people. Not that I would want this to be any different (one imagines oneself in the shoes of the relatives of the missing here), but it is amazing that so many disparate countries (Malaysia, the US, Australia, China, Norway...) are cooperating so willingly on this task. This contrasts sharply with the current situation in the Ukraine, for example, which sits so dangerously on a knife edge and which, if the situation tips over into all-out war, has the potential for death and destruction on a massively greater scale. Yet there seems to be little likelihood of cooperation or reconciliation here, despite the stakes being so much higher.

What is it, then, that promotes international cooperation in the Malaysia Airlines case? Is it the human angle -- the fact that we can all empathise with the personal tragedy of the situation? But why, then, aren't we able to do this so easily in cases of war or famine? Perhaps suffering on a small scale is simply something that we can comprehend better than the ‘impersonality’ of mass suffering or mass loss of life. Or perhaps it’s just that, in the Malaysia Airlines example, those countries that are cooperating are able to put aside their personal agendas and their differences because these things have no bearing on the specific case in hand.

There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer. But the question is a valid one, and the comparison an interesting one to draw.

15 March, 2014

Public sector employment circle

I am employed in the public sector. The organisation for which I work is entirely government funded. It has no income stream other than that from the government. This means that I am paid by the government for the work that I do.

When I pay my tax and national insurance, some of the money that the government has paid to me goes back to the government to provide services like healthcare, education and pensions for me and my family.

Thus the government pays me so that it can pay itself to provide services for me. All seems a bit of self-referential, really.

08 March, 2014

Cultural weekend away

I had a lovely birthday weekend a couple of weeks ago, spending a cultural two days in and around London.

We visited two impressive stately homes:

Kenwood, in north London, has recently been refurbished. It is a beautiful Robert Adam-modelled mansion which houses a stunning collection of paintings. The grounds are very pleasant, too, and lead out to Hampstead Heath. We were lucky enough to have bright, sunny weather and so were able to take advantage of the outside tables in the restaurant area to eat lunch. Just about warm enough in the February sunshine if you kept your coats on! Kenwood is managed by English Heritage but, unusually, doesn’t charge for admission, so is great for family days out.

Hall Place and Gardens in Kent is a beautiful Tudor house with magnificent gardens displaying Tudor-style topiary. The house has an interactive display area in which both adults and children can learn a lot about everyday Tudor life. The house also hosts a programme of exhibitions. When we visited, there was an exhibition about the (now defunct) local textile printing industry. We also enjoyed lunch in the onsite cafe (not outside this time!). Once again, this was a good value day out for us – as National Trust members, we qualified for half-price admission and only paid £10 in total for the four of us.

The final element of my birthday weekend was an adult-only treat. The parents-in-law babysat while my husband and I enjoyed dinner out in London, followed by a trip to St. Martin's Theatre to see ‘The Mousetrap’ – great light-hearted fun, and very well acted and produced to boot. Highly recommended!