Category Archives: Minitrue

Bulletins from the Ministry of Truth

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

Orwell’s pioneering fable – Animal Farm – has been translated into many different formats, including cartoon, radio and theatre. It is a testament of the greatness of the tale that it can be so adaptable. Now a stage version of Orwell’s seminal work by Laurence Wilson comes to Liverpool.

The local writer’s catalogue of work for theatre, television, film and radio includes: Urban Legend, Lost Monsters, Cardboard Guitar Man, Blackberry Trout Face, Tiny Volcanoes, Scouseland and Surf’s Up. His material has been produced by The Liverpool Everyman, Paines Plough, 20 Stories High, Menagerie Theatre, and Dukes Theatre Lancs. Blackberry Trout Face won Best New Play for Young People, the Brian Way Award in 2010. ten minutes hate caught up with the writer to talk about translating Animal Farm from the page to the stage.

10mh: Why did you choose to adapt Animal Farm and what are your thoughts on the book?

The chance to adapt Animal Farm came to me from Tell Tale Theatre Company. They had received funding from the BBC to commission a writer to write them a new play. A first for them and they collectively decided that they wanted to tackle Animal Farm. They contacted me and other writers and asked us to pitch our take on an adaptation.

I first read the book when I was about nine or ten and didn’t realise it was about the Russian Revolution and Communism. I was continually surprised and dismayed at how dark the story kept going. I kept waiting for Snowball to come back and save the day but of course that doesn’t happen and it was a great lesson for me about the reality of life and power, hopes and dreams.

I read the book many more times over the years. I’d wanted to adapt a book for some time and Animal Farm seemed the perfect one for me and so I made sure my pitch was really strong and it worked. I felt that the dark humour that I write was suited to the job and wanted to be as faithful as possible, whilst at the same time injecting a bit of me into it.

The book still stands up today, not just as analogy of the Russian Revolution but as a warning on how power corrupts, about the human condition to mess it all up and how easily we are conned and manipulated as people. The media do a good job of it these days.

10mh: What was your favourite part of the tale to adapt?

The arguments between Snowball and Napoleon were great fun to write but I think the scene where the porkers are executed and then followed by other animals was great. I tried it a few different ways and I think we have something truly gruesome and shocking now.

I also enjoyed writing scenes that are not main features in the book, such as Farmer Jones prepping the other farmers before the Battle of the Cowshed and the pigs getting drunk and how that makes them behave. It was great to bring in scenes to the company that had a flavour of their improvisations.

10mh: Do you think Orwell’s piece speaks to a contemporary audience and if so why?

Like I say, the theme is timeless. It was originally written about the Russian Revolution but it stands up today. Squealer’s character draws comparisons to the media and how the media feeds us a diet of bullshit and twists the truth to suit the establishment. Just like Boxer and the other animals, the working class are still being walked over by the rich and powerful.

The austerity measures being meted out by the coalition are not unlike the rationing, increased hours and loss of leisure and community spirit the pigs inflict upon the working animals on the farm. Benjamin represents so many of us who are intelligent enough to know things are wrong, that we are being used and cheated and yet choose to do little to nothing about it.

10mh: If you had to be a farmyard animal, what would you be?

I’d be a sheep dog, they always look happy and they are not food but they do have their pups taken from them and they may end up tied to a stone and drowned when they are too old to be useful.

10mh: What challenges did you find trying to translate the page into a stage adaptation?

I think other adaptations have gone down the narration route but the company and I didn’t want to have any narration at all, which meant creating lots of dialogue and realising scenes that aren’t in the book or only briefly painted. I read and reread the book over and over and wrote down every significant moment and all the lovely details about mangle-wurzels and the pigs learning to read from a children’s book.

I would have the book open on the area I was adapting and keep going back to it as I went, which worked well for me but meant that I had a first draft that was way overlong at more than 30,000 words. I cut it down by more than half over the next two drafts. Tell Tale also did lots of workshops which  I attended, in which the actors improvised under Emma’s direction, and that gave me lots of ideas about how to approach scenes.

10mh: Describe your writing studio/area you work in and do you have any particular rituals when working?

I write in my little studio space, surrounded by my beloved Doctor Who figures (Classic Period) and I try to get started early in the morning, as that’s when my brain works best. I try to get on a roll and just keep on rolling with it, as long as I can, allowing myself to be free, and adventurous, and dangerous.

My guitar is handy, so that when I get stuck or need a rest I pick it up and play for a few minutes before returning to the script. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. Sometimes I play music in the background to help create a mood. I try to inhabit the characters, to find their voices and I act them out a bit.

10mh: A favourite quote/philosophy/phrase?

‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’

Those words broke my heart as a child, one who though he was reading a fairy tale with a happy ending. Our whole civilization is based on that philosophy.

Tell Tale Theatre Company present Animal Farm:

Animal Farm FlyerAt Arts Club, Seel Street, Liverpool Tuesday 28th-31st October at 7:30pm. Tickets are available online here.

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They come over here, they buy our handbags

I think it is fair to say that the Daily Mail has an uneasy relationship with foreigners. Not very keen on them remaining in their own countries doing strange things, they are even less fond of the ones that decide to make Britain their home. Warnings about legions of poor migrants from various parts of the world planning to abuse Britain’s hospitality – ‘swamping’ our ‘over-generous’ benefits system and pride-of-the-world NHS in particular – are a staple of the Mail’s journalism.

However, it seems from an article that I read this week that they feel ambivalent even towards those foreigners who arrive in Britain for a very short time, bearing tons of cash that they plan to leave behind in exchange for luxury items. Especially, it seems, when those shoppers are of a particular ethnicity:

image

Caption reads: Oriental customers queue outside Selfridges

The accompanying article features brief interviews with (I imagine) fairly atypical consumers – the diplomat’s wife with £10,000 to spend and a young Thai student with a generous allowance from home – in order to ramp up the outrage. What sensible person could contemplate spending thousands on handbags? Shouldn’t students be starving in attics somewhere rather than shopping on Bond Street? run the subtexts. Yet it is in the caption to the photograph that the framing of the story really becomes clear, with the use of the term ‘Oriental’ to describe a group of people waiting to get into Selfridges department store.

The debate over the use of that word to describe people is neatly summed up in this NYU Livewire article, and while you could expect the Daily Mail to be resolute in ignoring what it will no doubt consider ‘political correctness gone mad’, even a brief glance at the Oxford English Dictionary would have told their reporter that:

it tends to be associated with a rather offensive stereotype of the people and their customs as inscrutable and exotic.

When really, of course, what is on display here is nothing of the sort. Stronger currencies in Asia mean that London is a very attractive shopping destination for a large proportion of those consumers usually so dear to the Mail’s heart: the suburban middle-classes. The people in the Mail’s photograph are behaving no differently than the denizens of Surrey and Hampshire did, when hopping over to New York for a weekend on Fifth Avenue, back in the days a decade or so ago when the pound had similar strength.

Rather than pointing out supposed differences, what the Mail’s story shows is that shopping is an international hobby and the  love of a bargain is universal. A more perceptive article would perhaps have dwelled on the irony of Chinese consumers flying miles to spend thousands on supposedly ‘British’ items their compatriots were paid pennies to stitch together or the emptiness of this acquisitive culture. Even the diplomat’s wife, with her five-figure sum to spend, was enjoying saving hundreds in the sales. Thriftiness (of a sort), a love of Britain’s quaint customs (queuing) and tills ringing across London. I would have thought the right-wingers at the Mail would find something in that to smile about, instead of such mean-spirited carping about this particular group of visitors.

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Justice, though the heavens fall

I was lucky, or unlucky depending on your perspective, to begin my legal training when it was considered Quite The Thing for everyone involved to know a little Latin. Quoting the correct words at the judge at the correct time would demonstrate that you knew your stuff and were one of the gang. Latin maxims and terms were scattered through the language of law degrees like Roman coins in the English countryside.

Thankfully saner counsel prevailed and, by the time I started venturing into courtrooms, Latin had been put to one side in favour of a legal process where the non-lawyers might stand a chance of understanding what the heck was going on. Most of the maxims I had learned gradually slipped out of my head through lack of use. But there is one phrase that stuck, although I doubt I could give you the correct pronunciation. It is this:

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

and it means, ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’, neatly summing up that right must prevail and damn the consequences. In a battle between procedural correctness and what is morally right, the latter should always win. Throughout history, commonly during the anti-slavery and civil rights movements in the UK and US, judges have invoked these words to give legitimacy to their actions when doing something the rulebook forbids, but which can be universally accepted as right.

These words apply perfectly to the Hillsborough inquests and the families’ long fight for justice.

The inquests relating to the deaths of the Hillsborough victims (at the time numbering 95 people, as 22-year-old Anthony Bland was still on life-support) were initially delayed while the Taylor Inquiry was ongoing and there was a possibility of criminal proceedings. Once LJ Taylor’s Interim Report was published, the inquests resumed. However, because the Director of Public Prosecutions was still determining whether criminal charges would be brought, certain of the usual inquest procedures were changed.

The Coroner decided to hold a general inquest into the circumstances leading to the disaster, followed by ‘mini-inquests’ dealing with the specific facts relating to particular victims, with a small group being considered in each session. Perhaps most unusually for an incident of this nature, the evidence would not be challenged under cross-examination, instead being presented as fact to the families. The opportunity to ask further questions was denied as the evidence could not be examined further.

An additional controversy was the Coroner’s decision not to hear evidence from after 3:15pm on the day of the disaster, as he reasoned that by that time ‘the real damage was done’ and death was inevitable. Crushing was given as the sole cause of death for all 95 victims. The 3:15pm cut-off time – chosen because the first ambulance arrived in the stadium then – meant that medical personnel did not give evidence at the inquests. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned by the jury.

The families have, understandably, always found that impossible to accept, yet an application for Judicial Review failed and the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny of evidence did not recommend that the inquests be reopened. Anne Williams in particular, the mother of 15-year-old Kevin, faced with inconsistencies in the witness statements of those who last saw her son alive and the expert pathology evidence, has repeatedly sought via applications to the Attorney General to have his inquest reheard and death certificate amended. All applications were denied, citing a lack of new evidence.

Liverpool fans knew that the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report meant that the journey was only part of the way over. The truth is now finally revealed, but the unravelling and overturning of the many contentious decisions made after the disaster has hardly begun. And a stunning blow was to follow, as Anne Williams – having been so much a part of the fight to expose the Hillsborough cover up – announced she has terminal bowel cancer.

In a recent article for Well Red magazine, I wrote that:

for many of us, the steps that follow [the publication of the Report] will take place in locations where we have little influence, as inquiries and inquests are reopened, criminal investigations and legal processes resume.

Yet perhaps that isn’t completely the case. Anne Williams’ supporters are petitioning the Attorney General to bring forward the date of the reopened inquest into her son’s death because of her illness. At the time of writing, it has over 35,000 signatures – enough for a response from the Attorney General’s Office. So far, that response has not been favourable.

Please, if you are eligible to do so, do not let that response dissuade you from signing the petition. 100,000 signatures are needed to force a debate in the House of Commons, which could be vital in speeding up the process so that Anne may live to see its outcome. Fair and balanced Hillsborough inquests are already 23 years overdue and further delays are inexcusable. While the procedures may say one thing, the right thing to do lies in the opposite direction and so – as it seems unlikely that the heavens will fall – Anne Williams deserves justice. She and the other families have deserved nothing less since April 1989.

If you are able to, please sign the petition today. Confirmation will be sent to you by email, with a link you must click for your name to be added. Thank you for your support.

Photo from the Liverpool Daily Post

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Well Red magazine Issue 16

A captivating image from the incredible tribute from Everton at their match with Newcastle, which took place shortly after the publication of the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. It was the perfect choice for the cover of the latest issue of Well Red, the independent Liverpool fans’ magazine.

Issue 16 contains reflection on the disaster and the contents of the report, as well as the government and media responses to it.

I also contributed an article, about my hopes that the report’s publication can bring to an end sick terrace chanting, regardless of which club it is directed at. Take a look and let me know if you agree or otherwise!

The magazine is out now in Merseyside newsagents and can be ordered for you by your local one if you aren’t lucky enough to be in the area. Alternatively, there is a digital version available for iPad, iPhone and Android devices here.

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‘Cracker’, To Be a Somebody by Jimmy McGovern

For all the many words written about the Hillsborough Disaster in the last 23 years, some of the most powerful have come from the Liverpool writer and playwright Jimmy McGovern. His 1996 drama about the disaster is being repeated on British TV at the moment but, before watching it, I wanted to go a little further back. McGovern also wrote the criminal psychologist show ‘Cracker’ and the episodes that make up the story ‘To Be a Somebody’ – screened two years earlier than ‘Hillsborough’ – are worth tracking down if you haven’t already seen them.

Robert Carlyle’s performance as Albie Kinsella, the Hillsborough survivor struggling to cope with his father’s death from cancer, allows McGovern to explore reactions to the disaster from a number of different perspectives. He shows us the police struggling to decipher the significance of Kinsella writing the numbers ‘9615498’ in his victim’s blood at the scene of their murders, a brazenly nasty journalist insisting that she as only freelanced for The S*n her conscience is clear, while Albie asserts that:

We’re getting treated like wild animals. And, yeah, one or two of us start acting like wild animals and the cages go up and ninety-six people die.

There are many details here which, while familiar to football fans in general and Liverpool fans in particular, must have shocked when broadcast on a popular, national, primetime show just five years after the disaster. The intervening years have seen them lose none of their impact. Viewers are reminded exactly how grim the early nineties were for large parts of England, our sympathies constantly provoked and confused.  We are led to feel desperately sorry for the grief which has destroyed Albie Kinsella’s family and those of his victims, yet disgusted by the journalist’s joy in instigating a bidding war for the story of her encounter with the killer. Despite telling his wife that he enjoys police work, psychologist Fitz almost gleefully tells a roomful of Manchester’s finest that Albie has:

got to kill 96 people in revenge for Hillsborough, and if there’s any justice in this world, most of them will be coppers.

Words that will return to haunt him later in the story. This was always one of the strengths of ‘Cracker’, that the police officers and title character were as flawed and three-dimensional as those they were seeking to lock up. As McGovern explains in this 2008 interview with journalist Paul Du Noyer:

 I always say the thing about ‘Cracker’ was that it was post-Hillsborough, that was the key thing for me. The way contempt for a huge sector of humanity could lead to something like that.

That mistrust and disquiet threads through the tale, perhaps most noticably in the family of a murdered shopkeeper. Of course, a major difference between drama and reality is that while McGovern’s story has the trauma of 15 April 1989 turning a gentle man into a murderer, many of those traumatised by what they witnessed on that day instead turned the anger in on themselves and died by their own hand. Others still live with the psychological effects of the disaster:

Hillsborough took away my life. It is hard to cope with sometimes. It is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last think about when I go to bed. Every day, 365 days a year.

It is running through my head like a video tape: people screaming for help but that help never arrives – they were in pure pain and agony, that’s what goes through my mind most of all.

According to McGovern, following the screening of ‘To Be a Somebody’, members of the bereaved families asked him to help tell their story, which he did to great effect in ‘Hillsborough’. These episodes are then an invaluable prelude to that perhaps more complete story, but as drama they stand alone – as testament to what Stephen King calls,

the truth inside the lie

of fiction – that it often does as much as a factual report to illuminate and inform. It is arguable whether the Hillsborough Independent Panel report would have been commissioned without the campaign by the families which Jimmy McGovern’s writing did so much to assist. This is television at its best, controversial but not for the sake of it, challenging and ambitious in scope, disconcerting and disturbing, yet always compelling and intelligent without losing its capacity to entertain. And so I am reminded, once again, of George Orwell’s words:

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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‘Bollocks – no one would have been killed!’

One of the first things to strike me on starting to read the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel was, that although I considered myself to be knowledgeable about the causes of the disaster, there was much still to learn. The panel’s incredibly thorough research doesn’t begin with the disaster involving Liverpool fans which took place on 15 April 1989, but instead takes the 1946 crush at Bolton Wanderer’s ground Burden Park – which killed 33 and injured hundreds – as its starting point. By doing so, the report’s authors clearly set the events of April 1989 in the context of a series of fatal incidents which took place at UK football grounds in the post-war period.

This has the effect of making the 1989 disaster somehow less unique, while still deserving of its dubious ‘honour’ as the country’s worst ever loss of life at a football match. It appears against this background as less of a freak occurrence, one which took the police, club officials and footballing authorities by surprise, and more as something that was predicted by many and therefore should have been better anticipated and thus avoided.

That is especially true in light of events at the same ground, on the same terracing, just eight years earlier. Spurs fans were well aware of the potential for supporters getting into serious difficulty, following their own experience of an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough against Wolves in 1981:

Spurs fans faced the prospect of a pain that Liverpool fans eventually had to suffer. Those at the front were bruised and battered well before kick-off and realised quickly they simply could not escape as things got worse. Some still speak of the crowd being packed so tight that their feet were off the ground as they moved.

As noted by the Spurs fans, the reason why there are no memorials to the victims of this earlier FA Cup game is that the police reacted much more promptly to the crushes. In a move that caused Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (SWFC) officials to express their anger in a debrief with police after the game, as it made the ground ‘look untidy’, fans were permitted to sit on the perimeter of the pitch, as shown in this video:

SWFC Chairman Bert McGee didn’t contain his anger at South Yorkshire Police’s (SYP) response or his disbelief that a fatal situation could have occurred, using the words from the title of this post [quoted on p. 64 of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report]. The report states that this disagreement lead to a souring of the relationship between the club and SYP which would have consequences for the day of the disaster and its aftermath.

If the club was certain that the risks were being over-stated, one important group was less convinced, but disregarded. Football fans themselves knew very well that being herded onto terracing in numbers that rarely conformed to stipulated safe capacities, to be fenced into pens with unsuitable crush barriers and tiny perimeter gates, was asking for trouble. As fanzine When Saturday Comes noted in 1989:

Complaints about safety and comfort were ignored because they were being made by supporters. Official action will be taken now, because the same points previously raised by fans are now being made by the government and the media. Their stupidity and cowardice over a long period of time allowed Hillsborough to happen.

There has been an unprecedented show of solidarity since the report’s release from fans of other clubs, with good reason. Spurs have reasons to count their blessings, as well as Nottingham Forest – our opponents on 15 April 1989 – who know that they could easily have been allocated to the Leppings Lane terrace instead of the safer Spion Kop end. Forest knocked out Manchester United in the quarter finals while we went past Brentford to secure our place at Hillsborough. Everton and Norwich City played the other semi-final that took place that day at Villa Park and so it is fitting that the ‘Merseyside United’ tribute by Everton at their game on Monday this week was one of the most moving.

From the first chapter of its report, the Hillsborough Independent Panel makes clear that the seeds of the disaster were the unheeded warnings of earlier games at other grounds as well as at Hillsborough itself. The summary is stark:

The risks were known and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable.

Despite the many warnings, as kick off approached at 3pm on 15 April 1989, fans in the Leppings Lane central pens were once again in harm’s way:

This time, there would be no ‘untidy’ yet lucky escape.

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Hold your head up high

Everyone who knows even a little about the Hillsborough Disaster knows the name Jon-Paul Gilhooley. Whether because he was the youngest victim, aged only 10 years old, or because of his younger cousin, another little Huyton lad who didn’t die young and grew up to be Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain has spoken of the effect of losing Jon-Paul on his life and that of his family:

It was a difficult time to know that one of your cousins had been at the game and had been tragically crushed. Seeing the reactions of his mum, dad and family helped me drive on to become the player I have developed into today.

For me, Jon-Paul Gilhooley’s name always stands out on the Hillsborough memorial, not because he is more important than any of the other 96 people who were killed, but because I was one year older than him on that sunny day in April when Liverpool fans came from all over the country to watch a football match and not all made the return journey. For a city and many beyond it, life would never return to how it was.

As children at the time of Hillsborough, we saw our fathers and mothers – always so together and in control – left grief-stricken and powerless in the face of police and politicians’ lies. We learnt to hide our anger at playground taunts and jokes because we had to prove we were better, weren’t hooligans in embryo as they said we were. Even young Liverpool fans knew not to trust what it said in the papers, years before the Leveson Inquiry.

We saw inquests run in a way to bring shame on the worst totalitarian regime, witnessed a report by a senior judge confirming what we all knew, ignored by those that had called for it. Watched private prosecutions falter, allowing the senior police officer on duty at the ground that day to retire and spend more time with his pension. Through it all, we heard the chants from the ignorant at the other end of the ground, telling us: you did it, if it wasn’t for you we could stand, more of you should have died, you killed them.

The high-profile idiots get the media attention: the unrepentant ex-editor, the Prime Ministerial wannabe, the quiz show panel member. All prepared to use the hidden evidence and official obstructions to sound controversial and elevate their own notoriety. But actually, far worse are the everyday morons who say it to your face. One of the first conversations I had on arrival in Japan was with a fan of some no-mark club who told me ‘there were hooligans at Hillsborough though, weren’t there.’

Now imagine hearing that, hearing that you are wrong, to blame, paranoid or mawkish for 23 years, even as you try to mourn. As you try to recover from the loss of your child, parent, cousin or friend. That has been life for the Hillsborough families since the day of the tragedy.

So emotions on Tuesday were heightened. By midway through the morning here, with the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report still hours away from release, a number of news reports had already brought tears, especially this one telling of a family coping with the treatment of their seriously ill son, injured at the disaster. It seemed incredible that the families were moving closer to getting the answers they deserved, after so many setbacks.

It was afternoon in Japan when the first reports began to come through, at first shocking news – worse than even imagined – about blood alcohol tests done on Jon-Paul Gilhooley and the other child victims. Then it all followed swiftly, the Prime Minister apologised, then Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, South Yorkshire Police, so many apologies that after 23 years with none, the head began to spin. Even the S*n and its ex-editor tried to get in on the remorse,  offering too little too late.

If in fact it ever resided in Wapping, ‘The Truth’ belongs to us now.

Too many years have passed for this to really count as a victory. The Prime Minister spoke of new evidence but later amended his statement to acknowledge that all of this information had been known at the time, but deliberately concealed. It didn’t feel like a day for vindictiveness, but I felt glad that the PM at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was alive to see the scheming she must have approved fall so completely apart. I hope someone showed her the headlines.

Of course, the campaign doesn’t end here. Now the evidence is revealed, there must be reviews, reopened inquests, amended death certificates, fairer inquiries and hopefully, prosecutions to come.

But they did it. They did it for you: for all of the 96. Your mums and dads, brothers and sisters, cousins, wives, husbands, loved ones, friends – even your children – some of whom were only tiny when you were killed. They fought for you and never gave in, these ordinary yet somehow superhuman people took on the whole establishment and got them to admit what we all knew. They lied.

As our song tells us: at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky. So long cherished as an idea and a shared goal, on Tuesday 11 September 2012, the clouds finally parted.

Justice for the 96.

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