Sunday, 5 March 2017

Out of the fire: a night at the Phoenix, and World Book Day

"There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he 
built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he 
burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like 
we're doing the same thing, over and over, but we've got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. 

We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we've done for a 
thousand years, and as long as we know that and always have it around where we can see it, 
some day we'll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Phoenix, in East Finchley, is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK: and it is one of those places, those temples of resistance, that squat defiantly in the corporate landscape of Broken Barnet, refusing to be, like so many other monuments of our local heritage, annexed and developed by the culture of materialism so faithfully adhered to by our elected representatives.

Sitting happily in the people's republic of East Finchley, in a Labour stronghold - a mix of social housing, on the Strawberry Hill and Grange Estates,  and probably the most self consciously intellectual, media savvy residents in Broken Barnet, the Phoenix has been the venue of quite a few screenings of films central to the political activism witnessed in this borough. 

Last year saw a joyous showing here of 'Pride', attended by some of the original participants in LGSM - some of whom had brought their famous banner to the children's march for libraries in 2015.

"Where do we 
go from here? Would books help us?" 

"Only if the third necessary thing could be given us. Number one, as I said, quality of 
information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions 
based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two.

Two films on the subject of residents opposition to the devastation on local services wrought by the Tory 'easycouncil' agenda have held their premieres here, Mrs Angry cowering in the darkness, with her eyes averted from her own woeful contributions. The second of these locally produced films, however - and most gratifyingly, was prefaced with an introduction by Ken Loach. 

And last week, Loach came to the Phoenix, after a screening of 'I, Daniel Blake', to take part in a discussion, with disability campaigner Paula Peters, from DPAC, led by the Guardian's Aditya Chakrabortty. 

Aditya has previously written about Barnet - and has local connections: a former Saturday boy in Hendon Library, you know - now one of the once magnificent Barnet libraries facing death by a thousand Tory cuts. 

Last Tuesday night was the second viewing of 'I, Daniel Blake', at the Phoenix, for me. 

On the first occasion, the end of the film was met with stunned silence, and disbelief, by the audience - a silence eventually broken by a spontaneous round of applause. 

Last week's screening was met with a more immediate outbreak of clapping, and an overt sense of fury - but throughout the latter stages of the film it was impossible to miss the sound of one woman sobbing - and the silent tears of the young man sitting next to me, the age maybe, of my own son - wiped away, in embarrassment. I wanted to say what someone once said to me, when I was his age, and trying not to cry, in front of strangers, over something: you should never be ashamed of your emotions. You should be proud to show that you are capable of being moved by the misfortunes of others. That quality, after all, is what makes us human.

The last time I had witnessed a woman sobbing, in a cinema, was years ago - at a showing of David Lean's 'Blue Velvet': a middle aged woman, distraught by the portrayal of sexual violence. Film has the power to unlock such a personal reaction: terrible, but a necessary part of the experience, if the film is tell the truth, and to tell the hardest truth, that no one wants to hear. For too many, the narrative of 'I, Daniel Blake', is truthful, too real - and all too credible, even if it is not your own experience. For others, who want to believe it is a fable, or an act of political indulgence - there is not much you can do to persuade them otherwise. They have no soul.

Some have tried to discredit the film, notably Times critic Camilla Long, descendant of the Dukes of Newcastle, apparently,  who concluded, therefore, from her many years of familiarity with the life and labour of the working poor Up North (East), that the film 'never rings true', and accused those moved by the story as enjoying a 'povo safari'.

On twitter, for a couple of days before this week's screening, some local Progress -loyal Labour members tried their best to pour scorn, on twitter, at the prospect of an audience of people moved by Loach's work, made the usual attempt to demonise them as 'Corbynistas', and belittle the message of the story: failing to recognise that the greatest living British film maker had captured, in the telling of the story of Daniel Blake, Katie, Dylan and Daisy, the visceral truth of a moment in our nation's history. 

At the second viewing, for me, it was even more moving - but for a different reason. 

This time, it was not the bleak ending that provoked such a reaction, but something more positive - the beautifully noted relationship between Daniel Blake and Katie's family: not romantic, or sexual: simply one of love, kindness, and sympathy: empathy. Community.

It's the difference between those who feel nothing, and those who feel perhaps too much: or at least as much as you need to understand the world from the point of view of someone else. It is a difficult leap to make, for some: for others, the world of imagination  is real, and immediate, and it is given succour by fiction, and art.

The people of East Finchley have a strong sense of community, as evidenced by many local campaign groups, the annual festivals, and especially by the support they have given, over the last couple of years, to the fight against their much loved library - a vital resource for local children. 

Children protest outside East Finchley Library, on World Book Day, 2017

In 'I, Daniel Blake', a pivotal scene in the early stages of the film takes place in a library in Newcastle. Daniel Blake tries to obey the requirement to process his benefit applications online, and has to visit a library in order to do so, being one of the many people excluded from a 'digital by default' culture that has become embedded in all government processes, national and local.

Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, 
Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, 
Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a 
headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the 
pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all 
unnecessary, time-wasting thought!
The day after seeing the film for the first time, I went to an 'information' session at a local library, meant to inform residents, rather than consult with them, of course, as they made the decision anyway, despite the protest, about how their libraries are going to be 're-shaped'.

East Finchley library protesters, on World Book Day

'Re-shaped', translated from the language of Broken Barnet, means 'destroyed':  the building handed over to Crapita, the library space assaulted and robbed of space, the book stock mercilessly culled - oh, and the staffing removed, by relieving half the workforce of their jobs, and replacing them with untrained, unvetted and unreliable volunteers. 

I've been thinking. About the fire last week. About the man whose library we fixed. What happened to him?

 - They took him screaming off to the asylum.

And then: the master stroke - imposing a new regime of DIY, 'open' libraries - totally unstaffed, from which children are banned unless with an adult. Any adult will do: ask that bloke in the grubby rain mac hanging around outside - or inside - maybe. No one will be there to make sure nothing like that happens, but still - the CCTV might be working, if you are lucky. 

At the Information Session, Mrs Angry decided to ask the officers from Crapita a question: 

Had any of them been to see 'I, Daniel Blake'? No. What was that? Well, part of the story concerns a man who relies on his local library and staff to help him access vital online applications. What were the Daniel Blakes in this area going to do, in an unstaffed library: teach themselves IT skills, in an empty room?

Perhaps the CCTV operator can help with that, too.

Needless to say, they hadn't seen the film, nor, clearly, were they in the slightest bit interested in the Daniel Blakes of this world. These people are the on the other side of the desk: the other side of the human experience. Libraries are for other people. Library books are for people who can't afford to buy them: who don't mind sharing, and borrowing, and taking home something belonging not to them, but to all of us. 

You can't ever have my books, she said. You know the law, said Beatty. Where's your common sense? None of these books agree with each other. You've been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now!

Last Thursday was World Book Day.

Back in East Finchley, local parents and campaigners had organised a dressing up protest, by children, in defence of their much loved library: the cuts will have a devastating effect on the ability of local children to access books, and study space - the latter a vital resource for less advantaged children unable to study at home. Even when children can visit the newly 'reshaped' libraries, which won't be very often, if they borrow books and cannot return them on time - much more likely now - they will be fined, which is a marvellous extra deterrent, of course, for the children who most need encouragement to use the resources a library has to offer.

Spiderman offers his support to the East Finchley Library protest

I spoke to a fourteen year old boy who was passing on his way home from school, and had stopped to see what was going on outside the library. He was aghast when he heard what was happening : he relies on his local library, because his own school library is so awful, he said. And of course he will not be able to visit the unstaffed branches now, on his own. 

It was wonderful to see the fury and passion of the children - and parents - of East Finchley unleashed in defence of their library. 

Let it be a warning sign to our Tory councillors: the shock of what they have done to our library service, in this borough, is about to hit their own electoral base, in their own wards, and it will be our duty to remind the voters, in the run up to next year's elections, exactly who is to blame for the devastation they have wrought, not just in the provision of libraries, but in the cuts to all other public services - while they indulge themselves in an orgy of unlimited expenditure at the demands of their private contractors.

My book of choice, on World Book Day, this year, was a book I had never quite got round to reading, but seemed the right thing to take up, at this point, in this year: Fahrenheit 451, by Roy Bradbury. 

451 being the temperature at which books burn, and the burning of books being central to this dystopian classic, where books, knowledge, and information are forbidden, and withheld from the masses. Where people live in a multi media world, their thoughts and actions directed by an unseen, totalitarian government, and firemen set fire to any house, and citizen, caught with books in their possession. It ends, however, with one former fireman rebelling against the regime, stealing the forbidden books, escaping, and making his way to join other disaffected rebels, academics who have memorised the knowledge once contained in books. A firestorm destroys the city where they once lived:  but they survive.

After the library demo, I made my way, somewhat wearily, to the bus stop, opposite the Phoenix, and dropped gratefully onto the seat, while waiting for the bus home. But not for long. As I glanced across the road, I suddenly noticed something: the latest screening at the Phoenix:

Love your Library. 

In the late, low light of an early spring evening, it seemed like a message from the cosmos: out of fire, rises the Phoenix. 

Out of totalitarianism, comes resistance. Out of hatred, comes love, and love really does conquer all, in the end. What can you feel, except pity, for those latter day book burners, who live without love of books, or reading, or their fellow men, and women - who sit on committees, or in their ministerial offices, with their cans of kerosene, intent on arson, fighting a war on knowledge, on thought, on justice: a war on me, and you. 

The phoenix rises, out of fire - and there is the lesson. 

We can fight back, and we can renew ourselves, and our sense of community - and we can win: there is always hope, and a way forward, however hard, at times,  it is to see.

1 comment:

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