Archive for June, 2016

theatre: red shed

30 June 2016

mark thomas

The Ipswich performance of Mark Thomas’s monologue play The Red Shed took place the week after the Brexit vote. This made it a bit of a period piece, though Thomas did insert some dog-whistle references to the referendum. The Red Shed is presented as the third act of a trilogy with Bravo Figaro and Cuckooed, but logically comes between them as it traces the roots of Thomas’s political activism to his student years in the North. His textual trademark is a double voicing of direct demotic speech and an erudite gloss of what the speaker is actually thinking. Basil Bernstein would love it. His stagecraft trademarks include calling attention to themes to follow, like a magician, as well as light use of props and heavy use of eye contact. In the 88-seat Avenue Theatre, he managed to address several lines to each audience member in rotation, and also employed half a dozen of them to occupy places as club members for him to address and ventriloquize. It was a simple, low-stress involvement device and the whole audience respectfully joined him in singing a socialist song at the climax.

The Red Shed in question is a socialist club in Wakefield which Thomas said “is like a Tardis for me except it only travels backward in time.” During the period that he was hanging around the Red Shed, Thomas attended a miners’ strike protest march and the spine of the play is his return to the region to investigate the verifiable facts of the day that gave rise to his memory. As usual, there is some divergence between the narrative polished by retelling and the unvarnished facts, and he alerts his audience to this, even asking them if they would prefer the truth or the good story. At the same time as Mark Thomas the actor wants the satisfying story, Mark Thomas the political animal finds facts more productive, saying that “If we want our stories to be better than the other side’s, they should be true.”  I believe at this performance we voted for the story, but we won’t know if our vote changed what we saw until he publishes the script. 

Thomas is an industrial nostalgic; in a previous play, he declared, “We used to have industry, we made stuff, it was fucking great.” He presents an attractive version under the topical circumstances: a bit about immigrants and workers uniting to oppose racism, a statement that “we used to own the railways. We used to not have to take the country back because we owned it.” A good line to hold against privatization of the NHS and – actually, it’s difficult to think of what else hasn’t been privatized already. But from another angle, the average worker in the engine age controlled very little, except in his own house, where, at least in stereotype, he overcompensated with autocracy. It is not only the Leave side that romanticizes the past.

Two pieces at this year’s Pulse Festival, held in May, showed common style with Thomas or even influence from him: Byron Vincent’s Live Before You Die was about young men finding a language, again double-voiced between laddishness and theory, to talk about their feelings. Andy Smith’s The Preston Bill was a narrated life story of a Northern working-class man, aggregated from many. He used a chair as prop, interlocutor, and even stand-in for Bill the narrator; and like Thomas, he made frequent use of cataphoria (“and what happens is this,” “and he says something like this”). Smith played the ukulele for his audience-participation solidarity song, which I think we had to sing several times. He was a skillful performer but the piece was somehow generic, perhaps better suited to schools or museums. It’s hard to be interested in an abstracted person from the past when there are individuals from the past, like Thomas, putting on shows.

Disclaimer: All line quotations are from memory and memory, as we know, plays tricks.

Addendum: The Red Shed apparently killed it at the Edinburgh Festival and will tour in the autumn. It may be a different show from the one I saw. 

covering Brexit

24 June 2016

Earlier I reflected on covering terror, which is crime plus catastrophe plus trauma. We have now gone through the referendum to remove Britain from EU. While the result may not be a crime or catastrophe, in fact technically it is the plain workings of democracy, my social media is pretty traumatized by it. So am I. The financial and leadership chaos compounded the trauma; as was widely noted, the Prime Minister’s resignation was only the third biggest news story of the day.

Despite the use of #independenceday hashtags by Leave supporters, the coverage pattern for this kind of secession story is far from obvious. Should we refer to Kosovo in 2008 to see what kind of stories to expect? How about India in 1947? South Carolina in 1860? That will have to wait for longer hindsight. For coverage on the day, however, there were some threads in common with the close 2000 US presidential election which also took us to an untested place in the rulebook, requiring a month of recounts and a Supreme Court decision to resolve.

what next

1. What next? Explaining the next steps seemed to be a morning-after story – it’s almost as if the press feared talking about Article 50 and related exit procedures too much in advance because that might influence the outcome. There were some future stories before the exit, but they either weren’t very dispassionate or weren’t very certain of themselves and either way didn’t get much play. The same lack of advance roadmaps was noticeable in the Scottish referendum. Another reason the press didn’t spend much time on models and mechanisms might be that they didn’t know what was coming next because the law gives so much discretion to the Prime Minister. Indeed we still don’t know what is going to happen.

covering terror

12 June 2016

World Trade Center. Dubrovka. Beslan. Kings Cross. Oslo. Boston. Peshawar. Paris. Brussels. Orlando. If you work in daily news, every so often you will find yourself covering a breaking terror story that requires all hands on deck. When I worked for a newswire, it fell to me to write up the 2007 Finnish school shooting (Jokela), and update it over two days of rolling rewrites. My colleagues who supervised me on that story had worked on the Finnish suicide bomber story in 2002 – a chemistry student who blew himself up in the middle of a crowd of kids in a shopping mall as they watched a clown blow up balloons. I know, really sick. They always are. The next year we had the 2008 Finnish school shooting (Kauhajoki), which I did not work on because I was out of town at a company investor meeting. Though Kauhajoki was quite remote and nobody seemed to be from there, everyone spent the coffee break calling home. And I was on duty the evening of the 2011 Norwegian terror attacks when every reporter in the Nordic countries helped chase up bits and pieces by phone and send them back to Oslo.

After these I developed a model for the terror news cycle. Broadly, terror stories in places that are not accustomed to this kind of violence seem to move through four stages:

1. WTF? The first news is likely to be vague (gunshots were heard) or unbelievable (a plane has flown into the World Trade Center).


retiring an element

3 June 2016

As our university rebrands for independence as the University of Suffolk, it is time to thank the UCS logo for its service. A square emblem bearing large sans serif characters, the old logo seemed to belong to a class of homages to the periodic table [1]:

scichanfive aliveSkolkovobrba

That concept carried attractive entailments for a research based enterprise. It suggested we were real, pure, basic, verified, perhaps precious, part of a limited set, possessing group affiliations and other properties that could be measured and used as dimensions for ordering. All reasonably true if you think about league tables. Units in this metaphor are not only tiled for easy viewing, sorting and ordering, but can also be combined into compounds. We were that with our parent institutions, UEA and the University of Essex, albeit in the role of a minority element with loose ionic bonds.

Playing cards work on the same principles of isolation, ordering, and recombination. The isolation and vision of order is what makes the Tarot appealing: the reduction of the chancy mess of life to hand-sized chunks. Each card shows an open allegorical image, but it is contained by a boundary. The Canadian literary magazine Alphabet, an early publisher of Margaret Atwood‘s work, used a classical myth as a unifying theme for each issue, which is not that different from a Tarot [2]. For text-centric applications too – business cards, baseball cards, note cards, PowerPoint – the card deck is the listicle of information shape and the card a key structuralist token, even when used in Oblique Strategies.


The UCS logo also made use of non-typographic elements. It showed a network of threads with small squares at the points where they intersected. These could be interpreted to show a mythical Suffolk road scheme with the positions of the universities in our network, not to scale of course. It resembled a spiderweb, which was also a good metaphor for a university (intricate, purposeful, beautiful, creative, connected, sticky). Nobody seemed to exploit this other than me in my staff picture, which I got Helga to take specially in the Tomás Saraceno installation in Taidehalli. Another shot from that visit, postprocessed to the point of blur, became the logo for my draft School of Arts and Humanities newsletter.

The old logo was somewhat diluted by the color scheme: we were provided a choice of colors, but none seemed to be primary, and come to think of it, the individual colors were mostly not primary either. Hail to thee, Alma Mater! Three cheers for the mustard and mauve! Or the grass-green and turquoise, if you looked at a different prospectus. [3] There was also some confusion with the other UCS, which is a prep school in London.

There are good things about our new branding, not least the clear color scheme – three cheers for the graphite and gold! – and its compatibility with the deep slate grey display walls made by Tom Owens and the other photography students a few years ago, which instantly upgraded our spaces to galleries. We need to think about what metaphors it suggests and how we can relate it to our theme of change and adaptability. So far, I’m thinking of it as turning a new page.

[1] The first one I came across was a Texas Gulf logo that was just Tg in Helvetica or similar, designed by George Tscherny. No oblong box around the Tg but the analogy was clear. Can’t find an image online.

[2] And indeed, what is an alphabet, syllabary or other writing system? Paradigm and syntagm, on multiple scales.

[3] Colors are difficult, so it’s perhaps good to try out a lot of them. Those of my own alma mater, MIT, founded during the Civil War, are cardinal and grey: cardinal for the red blood of engineers and grey for steel. This was close enough to Harvard’s crimson and white to permit the Coop to buy bulk lots of dark red and off-white gear to sell on both campuses. I am fond of silver and grey but not looking forward to the 50th reunion cardinal jackets which make the alumni look like old-fashioned bellhops at Radio City and also highlight gin-blossom skin. The color of Columbia University, home of my J-school, is sky blue, which made the graduates look as if they were wrapped in bedsheets when they were robed for graduation. UCS has a very attractive cyan-yellow-magenta graduation gown trim, which would be worth keeping if we could fit it into the symbol narrative.