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Archive for the ‘Children First’ Category


Is there one? Oh yes.

I am seizing on the fact that he is there, in our faces and our media, and will be there for the next four years. On the campaign trail, it was evident to me that personal popularity ranks very high with him, and he gets irritated very easily if people get under his oh-so-thin skin.

As a writer of riper years, I’ve been saddened for a long time by the lack of engagement of the arts worlds in the UK and Ireland with urgent, world-wide issues – climate change, the emergence and prevalence of harmful, hurtful, violent opinions, the damage done to our cultural lives, our humanity, by a succession of neoliberal governments, and, further back, the damage done to the NHS by its creeping privatisation under Labour, the destruction wrought on the fabric of British society by Margaret Thatcher, and the austerity choices made by increasingly right-wing governments in London and Dublin.

There have been some brave attempts which stand out because of their rarity – Ken Loach, whose writer Paul Laverty distilled his research for ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ into a screenplay so plausible it has the credible punch of a documentary, but whose uncompromising truths remain compartmentalised by the mainstream media as the ravings of a ‘lefty luvvie’. And at the National Theatre in London, this year I saw a verbatim theatre piece called ‘Another World’ about the radicalisation of young men in Britain.

In Ireland, ‘Hinterland’ by Sebastian Barry looked at party political corruption and the exigencies of political reality.

But who has written a play about Irish Water? About the mounting numbers who emigrate, as they did in the eighties? Who has written a play to tell our children honestly what the world is becoming?

The dancer and choreographer Catherine Young is the only creator I know of in Ireland who has recently given us a response to the political chaos our rulers helped to create. Her compelling dance piece, ‘Welcoming the Stranger’, was inspired by the stories of migrants and refugees from Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Africa – all whom have made Kerry their home. At The Everyman in Cork, Artistic Director Julie Kelleher has sought out women’s voices, from Carmel Winters ‘Witness’ to ‘Sisters of the Rising’.

Ireland’s great national theatres have been focused this year on the past glories of 1916, rather than looking at the present, or ahead to the chaos we are creating for future generations.

Writers! Musicians! Artists! Choreographers! We have a once in a lifetime chance to let our talents rip in the service of humanity. With wit, imagination, humour, words, gestures and music we can provide a robust alternative to the carping voices of bigotry, hatred, narrow-mindedness and paranoia. If the spectacle of Trump cannot inspire us to great satire, nothing will. If, out of the dystopia his world view will create we can weave a counter-narrative for our children and grandchildren, if we can restore dignity to our citizens who are disabled, old or poor, if we can keep our spirits buoyant and our eyes fixed on a goal which is not about wealth or power, but about a living planet fit for humans and all other species to enjoy, then our art will truly be serving the people.

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Why taking play away from children is a bad thing to do

I couldn’t agree more. I grew up in the 1950s, where street games, two ball rhymes, skipping rope songs with endless possibilities  and the rules of ‘Kick the Can’ or ‘Chain He’ were known to us all. Long, complicated role play games took in Davy Crockett, Dragnet, Robin Hood and Peter Pan.

Children need to play without adults watching and controlling. Children need to play, and they aren’t being allowed to.

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I feel deeply, passionately and bitterly sad to hear of the death of Team Educational Theatre Company, announced last month by email and on their Facebook page. After a courageous and painful struggle with strangulation by public neglect, and fatal haemorrhaging of its financial base from cuts from the funding bodies, it can no longer survive in this time of market forces, when the arts, like every other ‘business’, now knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Neither the Arts Council nor the Department of Education, which for years had kicked this company between them like an old football, was willing to champion it. In times of recession, funding for children, and especially theatre for young people, is an easy cut to make. Who cares what children think? Do they have a vote? Are they on any boards? Do they have any money to influence people?

Team Theatre had survived for 33 years, through times of great national poverty, all through the 1980s, a little sibling of the Abbey Theatre, who gave it a home and a rehearsal space in Marlborough Place; no doubt the Abbey also felt relieved that the unspoken national obligation to provide excellent theatre for young people was being minded, leaving them free of the responsibility. And Team embraced this wholeheartedly, perhaps to the detriment of their public face, because on their tight budget they had nothing left for spin, public profile raising, or marketing themselves. In the twenty plus years I have lived in Ireland I have only once seen a full interview with the director of Team in this newspaper. All their time, their best energy, love, and talents were dedicated to their audiences, not just the performances of two brand new plays a year, but the devising of interactive workshops to run with the play, showing kids a participatory way in to drama as education, and the actors listened to what children had to say on issues like suicide, death, poverty, even the excitement of being a hive-dwelling co-operative of bumble bees. How anyone can think this is not important enough to continue beggars belief.

I speak from personal experience; one performance of one play changed my life. I was sixteen when I saw Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop version of ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’, and it left me stunned, inspired and excited. Theatre could be about things that really happened, theatre could be about and for ordinary people, theatre could come down from its pedestal and talk directly to members of the audience, improvising responses! I knew then that this was the kind of theatre I wanted to spend my life with. I hope that out of all Team’s young audiences over the years, some have gone away with a similar feeling of excitement – not necessarily to be involved with theatre, but to feel they had a voice and something to say, in whatever field they might choose.

Many fine Irish playwrights have written for Team, many young actors cut their teeth on the fresh and challenging responses of their audiences. When I worked for them and Martin Murphy, their director, in the 1990s, any idea I brought to the table had to be road tested by workshops in classes of the target age, so that no ivory tower thinking would be loftily handed down for the kids to admire – these kids gave every idea and its originators an honest and realistic appraisal. Team’s funding from the Education Department in those days depended on a slice for the special inclusion of disadvantaged schools, and the workshops in these were of particular interest to me, coming as I did from a background of working with poor, marginalised, disturbed kids. One workshop I attended was to sound out their reactions to a play set in the Emergency – did they have any family stories about the bombing of the North Strand? They did – but even more exciting than that was the spirit of friendly anarchy that suddenly took over the class as they realised we were not teachers there to keep order – one boy swiftly executed a cock and balls on the blackboard, and even though we’d watched him do it, swore blind ‘it wasn’t me’. The same class responded to the play, ‘Burning Dreams’ avidly, and joined in the workshops after the play with that freshness and enthusiasm that all playwrights and actors long to provoke in their audience.

I write for children not because it’s easier – it isn’t – or because no one else wants to – I am sure there are other playwrights out there who would love to, if there was a decent living to be made out of it – but because I have a lifelong commitment to the arts for young people, and because my best ideas are inspired by children.

The Ark is still here, and Graffiti Theatre in Cork, and Barnstorm. Two dedicated theatre companies and one arts centre to cover the entire republic. This is shameful, and that we have allowed ourselves to elect a government who sees nothing wrong in ignoring the other needs of children, for decent medical care, housing, education and loving attention, reflects the attitudes we have subscribed to, albeit by being mislead by politicians who promised us to carry out a mandate we elected them for, later changing it to another mandate we specifically asked not to have, and explaining this on air as ‘the kind of thing you do when you want to get elected’. Yes, you tell lies.

Theatre for children that does not tell lies – that is the business I am in.

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I’ve been digging into my memory lately to think of ‘dips’ – ways we used to choose someone to be ‘it’ in chasing games. London school playgrounds were unselfconsciously rich in culture – I used to know about twenty different dips. And if I was being chased and I needed some time out of the game, the cry of ‘Fainlights’ with simultaneous holding up both hands with crossed first and second fingers was universally respected.

Here are the words of a song from Scottish children, immortalised on film in the Scottish Screen Archive’s site.

Well I sent her for eggs, oh then, oh then
I sent her for eggs, oh then
Yes I sent her for eggs, and she fell and broke her legs
Oh the world must be coming tae an end, ach aye

Well I sent her for butter, oh then, oh then
I sent her for butter, oh then
Yes I sent her for butter, and she fell down in the gutter
Oh the world must be coming tae an end, ach aye

Well I sent her for bread, oh then, oh then
I sent her for bread, oh then
Yes I sent her for bread, and she dropit down dead
Oh the world must be coming tae an end, ach aye.

You can watch the film if you go to their website. http://ssa.nls.uk/film.cfm?fid=0799

But coming forward to the present, Bess, aged six, says the recognised shout for time out of a game of tag is ‘pause game’….

How about you? Did you play games with dips and fains? How about your kids now?

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Revelations about the abusive behaviour of celebrities have a perversely hypnotic power to others apart from tabloid journalists. If you were abused as a child, you don’t need to ask how such things could happen. You knew that the adult world turned a blind eye to what was happening. You suspected that if you spoke out, no one would believe you. And worst of all, there was so much of it about, how could your own sad little case be worse than anyone else’s?

I was working in the BBC in the 80s and 90s and one of the criticisms aimed at our programme, which was for 3-6 year olds, was that it was too ‘politically correct’. It was the brainchild of the education department [which no longer exists], created by a team of young parents, some of whom had learned their skills in the Open University or as teachers.

Our passionate belief was that children deserve respect and that giving them a voice meant listening to what they were saying. The scripts that I wrote for ‘You and Me’ were inspired by hearing my children and their friends. And working with other kids, who had no one to be their advocate.

So now we have a national scandal and renaming of monuments to airbrush from history the name of a man whose personality must have been so overwhelming that he was able to get what he wanted and get praised and decorated by a grateful nation. I never met him, or anyone in the BBC who groped, raped, or behaved or spoke inappropriately. The culture around our programme was happy and healthy, to the extent that camera crews would keep working if we hadn’t quite finished on the dot [normally they pulled the plugs].

So I am glad we didn’t stop being politically correct.

Who invented that term? or, what man, because it surely wasn’t a woman?

If I see it happening, I will speak out. Injustice makes me angry. Abuse is the worst kind of injustice.

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Suggested by a nine year old boy in a school in Kerry, where we were writing limericks this week. ‘Look at the shape of the county,’ he said, pointing to a map of Ireland on the wall, ‘it’s the same shape as the poem – it goes in at the middle.’

He could be right.

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I was doing a placement in a psychiatric hospital in York when I heard a doctor say in a casual way that undisclosed sexual abuse was one of the causes of psychosis. The case conference moved swiftly on and I never had a chance to ask him if this was rare or common. Before this I had assumed that psychosis was an illness like measles, striking out of the blue, that could be treated with drugs.
But it made sense to me even back in the 70s that if someone has a mental illness, you at least consider the possibility that it has been caused by something that has happened to them.
In her gripping, horrific work of fiction, Lionel Shriver creates two monsters – one, the boy who from birth seemed to have little one could find to love, and the other the boy’s mother, a brilliant construct whom we only gradually realise is the most unreliable of narrators, emotionally remote, intelligent but ultimately destructive .
The unfolding of that scenario will, I am sure, make a gripping and terrible film, but it would not be, presumably, one in the mould of ‘Damien’ or ‘The Omen’, which play with the idea of children who are spawn of the devil. Commercial horror films deliver an over the top dose of unbelievable and grotesque horror – what could be more horrendous than a baby in the cradle contemplating demonic acts?
The book is not intended to be horror in that sensational way; it is literary fiction and it sets out a psychological scenario that, to begin with, seems plausible. Only the events as they move to their grisly finale had me asking whether we were in the world of shlock horror or psychological realism.
I haven’t seen the film, but from reviews I have read it would seem that the central boy plays the role with a knowing ambiguity, so that the audience is not sure what the reality is.
To suggest, even subtly, that a child can be born with a propensity to evil, is against everything I believe, from a lifetime of working with and knowing children who come from the most hopeless beginnings. Their constant struggles to love inadequate, neglectful, selfish parents remind me of the 1950s experiment with baby monkeys taken from their mothers at birth and kept in a cage with a ‘mother’ constructed of wire that could dispense milk to them. After a while, another mother, also made of wire but with fragments of rag attached, was put in the cage. She did not give milk. The babies soon developed an attachment to the rag mother, and left the nourishing but uncuddly wire mother. The experimenters then began giving the babies random electric shocks through the rag mother, which caused such pain that they had to drop off her and go back to the wire mother. But time and time again, they would come back to the rag mother, to test if she was going to shock them, and if she didn’t, they stayed clinging to her. That, in my experience, is what a child will do – returning over and over again to the punishing, hurtful mother . To suggest that a boy, even if he knows his mother rejects and dislikes him, would wreak this terrible revenge on her, does not make psychological sense to me.
However, if we accept that Kevin is never loved or accepted by his mother, while his father gives him unconditional love and acceptance, why does he choose to kill his father and sister? The focus of his hatred in this story’s logic would surely be the harsh and unloving mother? Unless he is capable of even more sophisticated sadism and leaves her alive purely to suffer the consequences of his acts?
I read the book at a gallop, but I could never read it again, and I don’t want to see the film. It taps into every parent’s nightmare of giving birth to a child who is unlovable from his first breath. Or that as your child grows, your love will be tested beyond breaking point.
And that is where I part company with Lionel Shriver. What would have interested me in this story would not be the voice of Kevin’s mother, the voice of the articulate middle class, the parents whose journeys are so extensively aired in broadsheet newspapers, TV documentaries, blogs and tweets. It is the voice of Kevin I would have liked to hear. What was his take on the world he was born into? What was going on in his head, from birth to his teenage crime? Children simply don’t get heard enough. This film won’t give a hearing to those abused and angry kids who could, I passionately believe, have had a chance if they had had some decent parenting.

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