Sunday 26 March 2017

I am Spartacus

A glorious day yesterday, after a pretty good day [cue Groundhogs] the day before. I had a lot on my plate because Friday-close-of-business my final year project students submitted the first draft of their write-ups. The quicker I gave them feedback, the quicker they could do corrections, and the quicker they could move on . . . final exams are six weeks away and there is lots to bone up.  I was ahead of the year because I'd spent the afternoon of the pretty good day mowing all around me so that the home-place looked less jungly. Accordingly I set to on the project reports at 0730hrs and worked and worked; but when the sun came up properly, I took breaks to sort out the woodpile and level out the dips in the yard. The door stayed open to let the sun warm the hall-floor and two strangers rocked up in the yard looking for information which turned into distracting chats about life the universe and everything LTUAE. To have the use of my legs and a ticker that ticks, to have a job where I believe I do good, to experience the first hot day of Spring, to meet engaging strangers and learn something new. Bliss was it in that evening to be alive.

Last Saturday of the month too! That's Blackstairs Film Society's [multiprev] film night. BFS is when I get to meet my community: the tree-huggers, ceramicists, hill-walkers, and blow-ins who also like films with sub-titles. There were no subtitles on last night's film, but maybe there should have been because I, Daniel Blake is carried on in deepest Geordie. But my ear is quite well tuned to that dialect's cadence because my first academic job was in the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and we lived there for seven years in the 80s. Indeed that was one reason to look forward to the film - to see if they shot scenes in any of the familiar streets of Newcastle.  The committee of the BFS has a tendency to turn aside from fluffy films and scour the World for gritty realism: Mongolian yak herder drowns in quicksand, the difficulties of being transgender in Cuba. I, Daniel Blake is another bitter-sweet story about an honest carpenter who can't work because his ticker has let him down on the job . . . but he doesn't qualify for Job Seeker's Allowance because his doctor asserts he is not fit for work and he doesn't qualify for Social Assistance because an apparatchik behind a Welfare desk decides that he is fit for work because he can walk 50m unaided and must apply for Job Seeker's Allowance instead.  Long sentences are hard to follow and I employ one there as a metaphor of the dystopian Kafkaesque world in which the poor old boy [my age, more or less] finds himself.

I, Daniel Blake is directed by Ken Loach and funded partly by the BBC. The BBC is reputed to be full of Lefties and anti-establishment types who find no paradox in sucking at the government teat while exposing government as inhuman and unforgiving and/or suitable for satire. And they have been good to Ken Loach who was making gritty BBC dramas exposing the failings of British society fully 50 years ago. As a young chap I was shook to my core watching his 'hymn' to homelessness Cathy Come Home [1969] as part of the BBC's ongoing series The Wednesday Play. My 12-y.o. middle-class eyes were on stalks as I watch that tragedy of the honest dispossessed unfold. His film Kes [1969], based on the story a Kestrel for a Knave, about a boy and a bird still makes me weep tears of frustration. You can find clips on youtube to give the bitter (there is little sweet here) flavour. Now here's a thing, all the kids in Kes are built like sticks: then there were no calories; now there are too many . . . but many working class kids are still without hope or prospects. Daniel Blake is a contemporary of Billy Casper, the young hero of Kes. Daniel left school, found work as a chippy, he worked, he married, his wife went mad and died, they had no children and he dies in the toilet of the office where he's trying to appeal his denial of Benefit. That's All.

One touching juxtaposition is that Daniel treats the kids, of a single mum whom he befriends, with respect, patience, courtesy and empathy. The Man treats him as a child because he can't fill in an on-line form or  a smart-phone but with considerably less respect, patience, courtesy and empathy. All very metaphorical: to himself and to his friends and neighbours, he is a Mensch. To those who have a pensionable desk job denying benefit to unfortunates like himself he is a cipher. The final scene, at his funeral, has his young friend read out the text of the appeal which he never got to make to the tribunal:
‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. 

I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar nor a thief.
I am not a national insurance number, nor a blip on a screen. 

I paid my dues, never a penny short, and was proud to do so.
I don’t tug the forelock but look my neighbour in the eye.

I don’t accept or seek charity.
My name is Daniel Blake,

I am a man, not a dog. 
As such I demand my rights.
I demand you treat me with respect.
I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more, nothing less.
Thank you.’
What's with the Spartacus reference? Weren't they slaves? My point exactly!

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