Friday, October 31, 2014

The Suit - stripped back South African theatre that enchants - don't miss it (Lyric until 31 Oct) #BelFest

Having thought that I'd run out of Belfast Festival tickets and shows, I'm very glad that I came out of retirement last night to watch The Suit in the Lyric. The steady stream of new people coming forward to access Victims & Survivors Services, never mind other troubling stories that have been dominating the local news, remind us that Northern Ireland is still coming to terms with the deeper consequences of how the Troubles affected society and in particular family life.

The Suit is a play from Théâtre Des Bouffes Du Nord that looks under the lid of the bustling 1950s South African suburb of Sophiatown as it prepared to be broken apart and sent 20 miles further out of Johannesburg to make space for white working class housing. In a middle of that civil disturbance, a marriage was also on the point of collapsing.

Philomen (played by William Nadylam) gazes over adoringly at his sleeping wife Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) as he gets up for work each morning, until one day he is told that his wife has an intimate visitor every day after he leaves.

Soon after Philomen arrives home, a man in his underpants runs out of the flat leaving his suit behind. The husband’s reaction is at first muted, but he formulates a novel punishment.
I see we have a visitor. We should show him every hospitality ... he will eat every meal with us and share all we have ... you, Matilda, will look after him meticulously ...
Propping the suit up on a chair, the trophy husband threatens to kill Matilda if she doesn’t respect their ‘visitor’. The suit is fed at mealtimes and watches over them in bed. Tension builds as the passive aggressive bully ritually humiliates his wife and the audience reevaluate who they think the real victim is.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The simple set fills the stage with painted chairs and clothes rails which are spun round to create new rooms, windows and even vehicles. The gentle lighting settles the mood with primary colours washing across the dark backdrop. The Lyric main stage acoustics allow Matilda’s singing to fill the auditorium with hope and joy.

Three musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Kavuma and Danny Wallington) sit to one side accompanying the action with a muted trumpet, piano, accordion, guitar and an array of colourful hats. They also act the role of minor characters in the play. Despite the destructive - and deconstructing - relationship, Peter Brook’s direction (along with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk) provides humour with some characters engaging with the front row of the audience and throwing in the occasional ad lib.

Actor Ery Nzaramba anchors many of the play’s crucial moments with his narration, though the other characters also speak of themselves in the third person, narrating their own circumstances and actions. It’s an unusual but distinctive device that works well throughout the unhurried 75 minute performance.
It’s not like the explosion of a devastating bomb; it’s more like the critical breakdown of a intricate mechanism ...
The Suit is based on a 1950s South African short story by Can Themba. Just as violence hangs over the apartheid society, in turn violence, humiliation and repression are present in the lives and relationships of those living in the black township. Northern Ireland audiences should ask questions about how the Troubles affected our society, and whether we have yet recognised the consequences and begun to properly deal with the aftermath.

Despite the miserable-sounding plot, The Suit is an enchanting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. It is stripped back, at times whimsical, yet deadly serious about the repercussions of a violent society. Between the mellow music and the script, it’s an intimate piece of theatre that is just the right length and leaves you feeling satisfied - if a little sad - by the end.

The Suit’s brief run as part of the Belfast Festival finishes in the Lyric Theatre on Friday 31 October. So hop on your broomstick tonight and get yourself a couple of tickets for a cracking piece of theatre.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Elsewhere ... war photography, public opinion on abortion reforms, bandsmen reflecting on WW1 and reviewing Jamie Bryson's new book

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about...

Paul Conroy delivered the Amnesty NI annual Belfast Festival lecture when he spoke about his experiences of war photography in Syria and the death of fellow journalist Marie Colvin. For those who missed his talk, his book Under the Wire relates the dangerous and ultimately fatal assignment in detail. A version of the post appears on Amnesty NI's website.

Amnesty NI released opinion poll information that showed that the majority of Northern Ireland public support the three amendments to abortion legislation that are in the current Department of Justice consultation. Under the banner of their My Body My Rights campaign, Amnesty's headline figures show that a majority think that the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape (69%), the result of incest (68%), or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality (60%). No matter how the statistics were sliced – by gender, age, social class, political preference or denomination – over 50% support the legislative changes. Support for abortion to be available if there is a fatal foetal abnormality is a little lower than pregnancy as the result of incest or rape, particularly amongst respondents identifying as catholic and nationalist. Good to see that my graphic to illustrate some of the research results was useful and made its way into other people's posts about the launch!


More Than A Flag ran in Ballymacarrott Orange Hall for three performances at Belfast Festival this week. I caught the dress rehearsal (and went back on Saturday evening) to see twelve young bandsmen remember local East Belfast men who served in the First World War. It was incredibly poignant to watch lads the same age as many of those went to war reading out names and addresses of fallen soldiers who came from streets only a stones throw from the venue. No flutes or drums, but plenty of speeches, poems, acting, dance and songs. And hope. The transformation of twelve guys from bandsmen into actors … and by the end of the performance, bandsmen who are actors.

Jamie Bryson released his latest book My Only Crime Was Loyalty on Friday, and I published an exclusive preview on Slugger O'Toole that morning with a review of the work and extracts from key passages. Now available in paperback (£7.99) and on Kindle (£8.04), the first hundred pages document his experience of being on the run, arrest, charge, bail, intelligence services and the Ulster People’s Forum. He also throws in how he came to read leaked copies of the Haass proposals.

Fundamentally Bryson has written the book to explain the background to his encounters with the PSNI over the last two years and his very long running court case. The process of writing may have been cathartic, but an increased understanding of his psyche and motivation, knowing that his bail condition variation requests were more about trying to humiliate and embarrass the authorities than ease the constraints will not change a lot of people’s minds about Bryson. Yet reading the book will allow Bryson to get under people’s skin and might just humanise the best-known face of the flag protests.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Makaronik (Dave Duggan/Aisling Ghéar) - Can language be eliminated? Why does culture threaten?

Playwright Dave Duggan describes himself as being “in the pleasure business”. He invites audiences to come and experience the Irish language and enjoy engaging with it in a theatrical setting.

Makaronik is his latest play, set in a futuristic 2084 when the Empire is in crisis and tidying up dormant stray elements of language that if ignored might later turn into threats.

The Centre has sent guards Gráinne (played by Mary Conroy) and Dairmuid (Cillian O’Gairbhí) to the Béal Feirste outpost to arrange for the remaining Irish stories, songs and poems to be archived by its last remaining resident Makaronik (Liz Fitzgibbon) and shipped back to headquarters. Then it will be JOB JOB DONE with LOOSE ENDS NO. Unlike their last assignment in Dakar where they got distracted: LIE DOWN LIE DOWN. MISTAKE MAJOR. JOB FAIL DUTY FAIL.

Gráinne and Dairmuid’s mother tongue is Empirish, but over the years they’ve picked up smatterings of other languages, including English which has been DEAD DEAD for many years. Yet given the cultural cleansing that has already been completed, they are surprised and feel insecure when Irish-speaking Makaronik demonstrates a knowledge and use of more languages than they expect: Latin, English and even Empirish. (Though the pair from the Centre might be equally shocked to discover most of the audience is fluent in Empirish by the end of the show too! EMPIRISH EASY LEARN LEARN.)

Makaronik doesn’t want to leave. And Gráinne could be persuaded to stay and abandon her mission of language genocide.

There’s more than a touch of Blake’s 7 in David Craig’s set. Old domestic machines lie on their sides, scavenged for wire and parts, and curvy coloured panels hanging from the roof. Chris Hunter’s Empire uniform favours knee-length leather boots, and Decathlon-style tight fitting black tops with simple colour detailing, and communicators fitted to the palm of its agents’ hands.

About three quarters of the dialogue is in Irish, the rest in English and Empirish (which has its roots in Orwell’s Newspeak (1984), pidgin English and a little Clockwork Orange and Harrison Ford/Blade Runner).

Makaronik is definitely a much trickier play to engage with if you have no Irish. It’s like watching CEEFAX with a set top aerial on a portable TV: parts of the page of text are missing. In the case of this play, most of the words are missing. Every minute or two another crib note in English will flash up on the three monitors above the actors’ heads, usually with a summary of a particular plot point rather than a translation of what was being said. (Personally I'd double the number of crib notes.)

The playwright likens it to watching an Italian Opera. The audience follow the action and understand the story through the clues given in gestures, facial expressions, the tone and their imagination. For Makaronik, the acting and interactions are good and as I type this the morning after I’ve a clear idea of what the play was about.

Yet sitting last night in the Lyric Theatre and watching the action, there was time to think. A bit too much time in-between the sporadic on-screen crib notes. It is clear that the science fiction play is richer for those who bring both Irish and English into the theatre. The wordplay will be greater, along with the precision with which audience members pick up the nuances of the characterisation and plot.

Audiences will – and should – choose to come into a somewhat alien environment, outside their comfort zone and enjoy what they can. Language should open doors, should increase understanding and expression. If there’s a message from last night’s performance it is that we need to get over our fear of languages and stop being threatened by them. Culture and language can’t be killed, they can’t easily be suppressed or eliminated. They tend to live on in people’s hearts.

Makaronik is on in the Lyric Theatre as part of Belfast Festival (Saturday 25 at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm) before touring in Galway, Monaghan, Derry, Maghera and Dublin. You can read Dave Dougan’s article on Culture Northern Ireland to get more background on why he wrote Makaronik.



Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Than A Flag - East Belfast bandsmen poignantly look back at WW1 as the audience see future potential #BelFest

Twelve young guys who couldn’t be much older than twenty. Most with no acting experience. Some haven’t been in a theatre never mind standing on a stage. Bandsmen. Proud of their community, proud of their culture and their flag. Often derided, stereotyped, and written off.

Over the last couple of months, Dan Gordon has realised a long held dream and produced More Than A Flag, a powerful piece of community arts by Happenstance Theatre that will be premièred in the Ballymacarrett Orange Hall on the Albertbridge Road over the next three nights.



Over ninety minutes, these young men remember local East Belfast men who served in the First World War. Watching last night’s dress rehearsal I found it incredibly poignant to see lads the same age as many of those went to war reading out names and addresses of fallen soldiers who came from streets only a stones throw from the venue.

While it’s a celebration of service it’s not a celebration of war, with room in the production to explore the awfulness of the conflict and even those who ran away and were court martialed and shot.

No flutes or drums, but plenty of speeches, poems, acting, dance and songs. And hope. The transformation of twelve guys from bandsmen into actors … and by the end of the performance, bandsmen who are actors.

Bandsmen. Proud of their community, proud of their culture and their flag. Talented, and now celebrated, seen to be full of potential.

A quality production that looks back at the past, but also looks toward a bright future, playing at Belfast Festival for three nights only. Some tickets still available for the opening tonight if you phone the box office 028 9097 1197.

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You can also read Culture Northern Ireland's preview.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

All aboard The Holy Holy Bus as Brassneck's brand new production takes audiences on a side-splitting tour #BelFest

The Holy Holy Bus left the front of Clonard with its three passengers and tour guide setting off on its annual pilgrimage around Ireland’s religious shrines and relics. Last night’s packed Waterfront Studio audience strapped themselves into their seats as Brassneck Theatre Company delivered an exhilarating and entertaining performance of their brand new production which is premiering at Belfast Festival.

Lily (played by Stella McCusker) is coming to terms with illness and old age. She’s the kind of woman who confesses to murders to wind up visiting priests. Her daughter Sally (Roisin Gallagher, fresh from Pentecost in the Lyric) is childless, divorced and reluctantly agrees to accompany her mum on “one last big adventure”.

Tour guide Perpetua (Claire Connor) is devout, devoid of a sense of humour, and takes a condescending attitude to the loud Shankill taxi-driving bleached “pradestant” Rita (Caroline Curran, bringing a copy of 50 Shades with her) who joins the other three women on the bus “for the craic”.

Five picture frames mounted across the simple black backdrop ground each scene with simple images and the occasional well-placed video.

The laughs flow continuously with banter, truisms, facial expressions, a touch of slaggin’ and topical references to Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Tabernacle. One joke about Bulimia jars amongst the otherwise measured script. Audience members couldn’t keep themselves from joining in the singing and humming along with the music played between acts.

As the play progresses, the Holy Holy Bus morphs into a secular bus and spiritual renewal is totally replaced by dreams of sexual fulfilment. In fact, some of the material in the second half – and the ad nauseum references to “black bamboo” – perhaps unnecessarily turns it into 15+ show. While the production moves substantially beyond the initial character stereotypes to get to the heart of the pain that is driving each woman, humour ultimately propels the show towards its finale as much as true healing.

The mother/daughter scenes between Stella McCusker and Roisin Gallagher are incredibly fond and moving to witness. While going on a physical journey could have become an enormous cliché around the production’s neck, Pearse Elliott’s well drawn script, strong cast and Tony Devlin’s intelligent direction mitigate the risk and deliver a great night’s entertainment.

The Holy Holy Bus is the tightest, feel-good comedy theatre I’ve seen in years, with believable on-stage chemistry and a cast with the ability to switch an audience from belly laughs to silent pathos in an instant.

This isn’t high theatre with beautiful soliloquies and speeches that school children will ever be forced to learn by rote. However, it is the kind of populist alternative pantomime deserves to be the worthy successor to the tired Grimes and McKee yuletide shows. Last night’s Waterfront Studio audience – young and old (the most diverse I’ve seen at this year’s festival so far) – loved it.

The Holy Holy Bus departs from the Waterfront Studio at 8pm every night (except Sunday) until 31 October before going on tour to Lisburn, Newtownabbey, Newry, Strabane and beyond.

Now if I could only get the tune of Hallelujah out of my head …

- - -

Grania McFadden's review of The Holy Holy Bus in the Belfast Telegraph.

Other theatre worth checking out later this week includes An Enemy of the People (Thu-Sat), More than a Flag (Thu-Sat) and Makaronik (Fri-Sun)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Elsewhere ... Jonathan Powell, Paul Conroy, UUP conference review and #BelFest treats

Elsewhere last week I blogged on Slugger O'Toole about:

Jonathan Powell's talk at the Belfast Festival in which Tony Blair's Chief of Staff and now political negotiatior around the world spoke about his book Talking To Terrorists, admitted that "terrorists are often better negotiators than governments", and offered a view on the latest set of political talks at Stormont.

War photographer Paul Conroy is speaking at Belfast Festival tonight. The original event sold out but there is now a 'late show' at 9.15pm with some tickets still available from the festival box office on 028 9097 1197.

Saturday's UUP autumn party conference saw DRD minister Danny Kennedy poking fun at other Executive ministers a few minutes after stating "more than ever we are witnessing the politics of the playground". Party leader Mike Nesbitt talked about victims, the military covenant, and proposing a DUP/UUP Westminster electoral pact in North Belfast/Fermanagh & South Tyrone. You can listen back to the speeches. (The previous Saturday afternoon was spent at the PUP conference - with audio available too.)



And don't forget that there's lots of great theatre coming up this week at Belfast Festival including An Enemy of the People (Thursday-Saturday) which I highly recommend having previewed the show in the Barbican a few weeks ago, More than a Flag, The Holy Holy Bus Tour, and Makaronik.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Celebrating William Rowan Hamilton in the Linen Hall Library on Thursday ... it's Irish Maths Week

It's Irish Maths Week. Whether deliberately tied in or not, the Linen Hall Library are celebrating the life of nineteenth century William Rowan Hamilton on Thursday evening at 6pm in Belfast.

Poet and Fellow Emeritus at Trinity College Dublin, Iggy McGovern will perform pieces from his sonnet sequence A Mystic Dream of 4 based on the Irish mathematician's life.

Hamilton's son is quoted describing his father's approach to problem solving:
He used to carry on, long trains of algebraic and arithmetical calculations in his mind, during which he was unconscious of the earthly necessity of eating; we used to bring in a 'snack' and leave it in his study, but a brief nod of recognition of the intrusion of the chop or cutlet was often the only result, and his thoughts went on soaring upwards.
Admission is free, all welcome.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Listen back to Roger Trigg, Colin Harvey and Michael Wardlow speaking on Equality, Freedom and Religion at PCI's second Church in the Public Square conference

Do we need a Bill of Rights? Is Equality a Biblical value? Are human rights all about me?

These were some of the questions addressed at today’s The Church in the Public Square conference organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Today’s event focussed on Equality, Freedom and Religion. It was curiously appropriate that as delegates arrived the music wafting up from the Spires shopping arcade underneath the conference venue was “I can’t get no satisfaction”!

Three speakers each addressed the audience of a hundred in Assembly Buildings for thirty minutes, before being interrogated interviewed about their remarks.



Roger Trigg is the Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Warwick. Speaking under the title of “Religious Freedom in a Secular Society”, he began by suggesting that religion is on the defensive as Europe becomes more aggressively secular. He argued that the act of saying someone is immoral doesn’t necessarily equate to saying someone is of lesser worth.

In what came across to me as quite a defensive talk, Roger commented that people desire respect for the right to do things (that some Christians may disagree with) and then also want respect for doing them. He saw conflict between religion and an emerging egalitarian orthodoxy. Later in his presentation, Roger asserted that “just because you believe something doesn’t mean you should impose it on other people … we’re given freedom [by God]” adding that Jesus didn’t use his power to make people believe.

Roger also highlighted the use of phrases “freedom of worship” and “freedom of religion”, the former supporting “going to church on a Sunday but keeping quiet about it for the rest of the week”. He criticised attempts “to make the state neutral” and to privatise religion, concluding that a neutral state stands for nothing.
“What I do not mean by equality is that all beliefs are equal. That would be relativism and “the path to nihilism”.
Roger's comments on the need for "conscience clauses" in legislation triggered a reaction from the National Secular Society!

The second speaker was Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University of Belfast.
“Human rights are intrinsically relational and social … If I engage in the public square and I argue for human rights, surely I am not in the public square simply arguing that only Colin Harvey has human rights. At the core of the argument for human rights is that all human persons should have these rights as well. It’s an awful tragedy in much of the modern portrayal of human rights that that social and relational, understanding of human rights belonging to all human beings universally is neglected and underplayed in favour of a more individualistic discourse of human rights.”

Colin recognised that locally some people struggle for human rights and equality because of their faith. But he called the church to reclaim engagement and participation in the language of and discourse in human rights. They shouldn’t walk away from the debate.

“Healing conversations” were required by society around complicated and difficult issues and areas. It would help if a Bill of Rights was seen for the benefit of everyone rather than any particular group or section of society promoting its introduction. Arguing for the right of religious expression and the right not to be discriminated against would by its very nature also support religious pluralism.
If the only time I hear my voice out loud in the public square is talking about me, I worry about that. I think human rights for me starts with the human rights of the other, how we can better serve the other and a recognition of the humanity of the other … a recognition of who is my neighbour.

Colin then widened the scope and asked delegates to stand up for the rights and welfare of refugees, asylum seekers and the millions forcibly displaced across the world. He dared the delegates (and implicitly the church) to go beyond food banks and to find out how human rights could challenge the economic structures that make foodbanks a reality today.



After lunch it was the turn of Michael Wardlow, the Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission for NI. Michael was addressed the not-exclusively Presbyterian audience as a practicing Christian holding the public appointment. Prior to this role (and a number of others be holds/pursues in parallel) he spent fifteen years working to promote and support the integrated education sector, and worked in Uganda and the Eastern European. Fixing broken things is a career trend.

Time doesn’t allow me to transcribe Michael’s every word, but you can pick up the gist of his fast-paced talk by flicking through the slides.


He outlined the Bible’s call to equality, suggesting:
What we have from the Bible is not a bland, levelling equality: rather we have an equality that is the by-product of love – the seeking of an imbalance in favour of the other according to his or her needs. [emphasis added]
Reminding the audience that discrimination is not necessarily unlawful, Michael highlighted examples of mass discrimination throughout history and explained the Equality Commission’s scope and framework.
Legislation is like scaffolding built up around a building until it becomes stable.

Two case studies looked at religion and gender, with legislation assisting a big improvement in the Catholic workforce, though a more patchy increase in female representation in different jobs.

Michael finished his prepared address with a call for a generosity:
If we’re people enthused with grace, our grace needs to be imbued with generosity.
Responding to questions after his talk, Michael rejected the suggestion that the Equality Commission was targeting Christians. Due to the stage in the process that has been reached, he was limited in what he could say about the Ashers Bakery “cake” complaint, but he explained the process that the Equality Commission follows and the questions that are asked:
  • Is there a point of law that hasn’t been tested?
  • Is it an unrepresented group?
  • The commission doesn’t go out looking for complaints: they wait for people to get in touch.
  • Their legal funding committee considers applications.
  • Every year ECNI supports about 80 cases of which about 10 end up in court.
Earlier in the day as delegates arrived, some people picked up leaflets urging support for an Ashers Bakery petition (labelled as being distributed by "Christian Soldiers - UKIP") and "When the salt loses its savour" tracts (with rusty staples).

While numbers were down on the first Public Square conference earlier this year, there was representation in the room from many political parties and public bodies like the PSNI.

Converting PCI to a position of using the language of human rights and equality – never mind engaging with the concepts and willingly applying them to others – will be a long process. However, with a many assistant ministers (“licentiates”) in attendance along with a range of ordained clergy (as well as elders and general laity) at least the conversation, if not the conversion, has started.

While not explicit in the programme or the on-stage introductions, the conference implicitly limited itself to the Public Square in Northern Ireland. It would be good to see the Presbyterian Church of Ireland finding imaginative ways of exploring its situation on both sides of the border. While the format avoided confrontation, there were people and opinions present in the room whose views were limited to their table discussions and were not aired to the full audience. At some point, the ‘Freedom’ in the title will have to extend to hiding fewer elephants under the rug and facilitating dialogue across the breadth of belief.

Pits and Perverts - Lyric Theatre (until 11 Oct) - the story of two strange bedfellows

In July 1984, as the miners' strike intensified, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) group was set up in London. A Sun newspaper said:
the gay community's support of the miners is an unholy alliance of Pits and Perverts.
While at first these two feel like strange bedfellows, members of both groups shared experiences of being arrested and charged with offences they didn't commit, police brutality, fighting for rights, and media misrepresentation. With National Union of Miners bank accounts frozen, support organisations were twinned directly with mining communities. London's LGSM financed the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valley miners, and held a fundraising benefit gig - "Pits and Perverts".

Micheál Kerrigan's debut play delves into this social history, distinct from the recent film Pride.

Sean (played by Conor Maguire) escaped from Derry after his best friend Jim (Alex Wilson) was killed on Bloody Sunday. Nightmares and trauma continue to haunt him as he lives in London with partner Gene (Michael Johnston), a talented music student. With experience of army raids in 'Free Derry' it's a short jump for Sean to support the pit workers. South Wales miners David (Jason Davies) and Rhys (Patrick Buchanan) come to stay, and are at first very uncomfortable with their hosts and accommodation. Added to the mix is Gene's final year concert partner Candida. Orla Mullan superbly played the toffy-nosed Tory singer who thinks the miners should go back to work as the picket line chorus of "Maggie Maggie Maggie, out out out!" accompany her Mahler rehearsals.

Last night's performance of Pits and Perverts by Sole Purpose packed in the facts about the early 1980s. Characters reminded the audience about hunger strikes, the mining dispute and the Thatcher government as well relating the experiences of the gay community. Still images from the era were projected onto the plain walls of Gene and Sean's flat.

Cimabue's Crucifix along with the works and life of Michelangelo were threads running through the play. There were moments of profound observation along with more stereotyped set-piece encounters and situations. At times the calls of "we're all in this together" smacked more of David Cameron's Big Society than 1984 industrial dispute.

Pits and Perverts took a while to warm up and perhaps ticks too many boxes as it combines aspects of Derry, South Wales and London. Conor Maguire's portrayal of Sean - at first stuttering and always prone to emotional outbursts - is very believable. Lighter moments in the second half nearly descend to farce as musical traditions are shared.

By the end of the play, more than just the strike had finished and there were fresh beginnings for many of the characters as the ambition to fight for other people's rights spread. (One real-world consequence of the LGSM's support for miners was the adoption of lesbian and gay rights as equality issues by the TUC and Labour party.)

The Lyric Theatre autumn programme seems dominated by plays featuring ghosts and the on-stage playing of music instruments!

Pits and Perverts is in the Lyric Theatre at 8pm this week (until Saturday 11) at the end of its UK tour. Tickets £10.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Will and Testament - a fond and personal nod to Tony Benn whose life could never be summed up in 100 minutes

The only time I saw Tony Benn in person was in the Elmwood Hall as part of a 'BT Talks' event at Belfast Festival. The former MP, trade unionist and socialist who renounced his inherited peerage spoke with passion and fervour, captivating the audience with his anecdotes, asides and reflections on the problems in the current political system.

A diarist who abandoned written notetaking and instead recorded his memory of and reflections on the day into a tape recorder before going to sleep each evening, Tony Benn amassed a considerable archive of his life throughout the war (RAF), parliament, the miners' strike and beyond.

Over a hundred minutes, the producers of Tony Benn: Will and Testament combined interviews with the politician in his humble kitchen and inside the House of Commons chamber with archive photography, news reel and TV reports.

But it's not the recollections of the war, his ministerial posts, or the woes of New Labour that stand out. It's his honest reflection.

What was missing in Ian Paisley's interviews with Eamonn Mallie screened on BBC One NI earlier this year was any kind of self-reflection, any kind of realisation that he'd made mistakes and that Northern Ireland would have been better-served by different decisions and actions.
I've made a million mistakes in my life - I'm not ashamed ... that's how we learn (Tony Benn)
The Labour MP performed a U-turn after his early support for nuclear energy which at the time he believed to be cheap, safe and peaceful, but later discovered was expensive, dangerous and supplying plutonium for US warheads.

Once an interesting politician that the media liked to quote, Tony Benn was later demonised.
When the media turns on you, they're a very powerful assassination squad ...
... a statement by Tony Benn that reminded me of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People (a powerful play coming to Belfast as part of Belfast Festival). Tony Benn's family suffered as the media camped outside their house, ringing the doorbell through the night and taunting his children to say something newsworthy. His wife Caroline understood.

During the film Tony Benn spoke about the influence of his parents. But his fondest words were reserved for his wife who he said taught him how to die through her four year illness with cancer. It was Caroline who suggested that he "leave Parliament to devote more time to politics". He bought the bench he proposed to her on in Oxford and placed it opposite her grave.

While the film jumps around between locations, much of the imagery is beautiful, and the moments of silence in the narrative allow the story to breath. There's no reference to his opinions and pronouncements on Northern Ireland and the role of Sinn Fein.

Will and Testament is a fond and personal nod to a politician whose life and principles could never be summed up in 100 minutes.

There's one last showing of Tony Benn: Will and Testament in the QFT on Sunday evening (5 October) at 8.50pm followed by a recorded 'satellite' discussion from earlier in the day in London.

Equality, Freedom and Religion - PCI's second Church in the Public Square conference (Thu 9 Oct)

Back in January, they brought together Scottish Free Church theologian Prof Donald MacLeod (who could teach Ed Miliband a thing or two about speaking without notes for an hour), Dr Jonathan Chaplin (with a background in Christian ethics and political thought) and NI's Attorney General.

John Larkin QC took the opportunity to take exception with the British Supreme Court's ruling which upheld a judgement against Christian guesthouse owners Mr & Mrs Bull who refused to provide accommodation to a gay couple. At least three Executive ministers not to mention Assembly committee members attended along with 200 delegates.

I'm firmly of the belief that churches deserve to be in the public square, but they need to take the initiative to elbow their way into the crowded agora and have something worthwhile to say. While peace and reconciliation efforts were made both at grassroots and denominational levels, over the last 40 years some inconvenient issues were ignored. There is much that the church could challenge, holding up Gospel values against Executive policies nevermind Executive politics.

So it's good to see Presbyterian Church in Ireland holding a second Church in the Public Square conference. On Thursday 9 October, Union Theological College and PCI's Church and Society Committee are hosting a conference addressing Equality, Freedom and Religion. The organisers say:
The equality agenda is important in building a just and equitable society. Yet this raises many very important issues which have scarcely been debated, never mind satisfactorily resolved. Whilst freedom of religious belief is widely accepted, there is much less consensus on the issue of freedom of religious expression and practice within a modern democracy. This is one of the core themes that will be explored at this day conference, with the help of our three key speakers.
Given the title, it's unfortunate that all three of the main speakers are men (again).
  • Religious Freedom in a Secular Society - Prof Roger Trigg (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick)
  • Faith in Human Rights and Equality - Prof Colin Harvey Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast)
  • Facing Equality: What’s the Story? - Dr Michael Wardlow (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland)
Michael Wardlow's comments will much particularly anticipated in light of this summer's correspondence between the Equality Commission and Ashers Bakery over what became known as the "gay cake".

Update - listen back to the three talks.

Thursday 9 October in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. Registration from 9.30am for a 10am start; finishing by 3.30pm. Tickets can be booked in advance (£20 including lunch, £12 full time students) by Monday 6.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Discover the revamped area for 8s and under in W5 - music, animation, water & a Fiat 500

A revamped Discovery zone opens in W5 on Saturday 4 October.

Aimed at under 8s - though plenty of fun for under 42s too! - the brightly coloured area on the second floor is tucked in beside the ClimbIt structure.

It's amazing to see kids fearlessly climbing on and through the petals on the enormous sculpture, untroubled by being several storeys up in the air, but feeling safe and cocooned by the netting that envelopes the structure.

Quite a feat of engineering as the timelapse video of the ClimbIt build shows.

Inside the new Discovery area, little visitors find a town with 16 themed areas. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the shiny Fiat 500 that's sitting inside a faux Donnelly Group garage.

A brand new model was ordered and then mechanics stripped out the engine, gearbox and even the empty fuel tank.

The suspension was changed so there would be no way tiny fingers could get trapped, edges were smoothed, seats were raised, and holes were securely plugged. But what's left is a doorless car that kids can climb into and drive, pressing buttons and flashing lights in complete safety.

Elsewhere Isambard Kingdom Brunel would be very impressed with the mandatory water feature (with very cute waterproofs for budding messers) and several wooden railways with lots of extra track.

There's a health centre (with a smelling display that will elude by missing olfactory sense), a boat, a farm, a music studio with flashing lights and foam guitars and a stop-go animation workstation that's going to have a long queue behind it when doors open to the public on Saturday morning.

Elsewhere in W5 it was good to nose around and discover that there have been major updates since my last visit with extended family.

Local MLAs should head along to the opinion polling exhibition and think about the merits of renewable energy. Budding crane operators can have a go with a mini-Samson (or Goliath). And the car building/racing track and musical staircase are still there.

W5 opens Monday-Saturday at 10am and Sunday at 11am. My advice would be to go early if you can and enjoy the less crowded hands-on exhibition areas.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Just Living conference (Sat 4 October) - linking local with global justice

Struggling to understand how to live ethically in a culture of greed and commodity?

Wondering how or if we can make a difference to worldwide injustice - poverty, exploitation, child mortality - from here in Northern Ireland?

This Saturday, a one day conference Just Living: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere is running in the Duncairn Centre in North Belfast, organised by Contemporary Christianity and other organisations.

It will look at how local acts can be linked with global justice, and how simple everyday choices can lean towards justice and have a lasting impact on ourselves, our communities and the wider world.

Saturday 4 October, 9:15am-2pm. Booking is online and the cost is just £5.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Reflections on Ofcom's 2014 Communications Market Report for Northern Ireland

Over the summer Ofcom published their 2014 Communications Market Report (CMR), an annual snapshot of communications, broadcast, digital media and postal markets. [I’ve a habit of blogging about the CMR report every year.]

Earlier today, an Ofcom seminar explored some of the Northern Ireland-specific aspects of the research and invited discussion. In the end, those present focussed almost solely on digital media literacy and the state of local and devolved government websites and their ease of access to online and offline users. I’ll return to that subject, but first some comments on some findings in the report that the room didn’t want to focus on!

MOBILE

CMR2014 provides evidence to back up what we all know. More and more people are using more and more of the internet on the move. A consequence of this is that websites that aren’t responsive or tailored for phones, phablets and tablets see their usage go down.

Over the last two years, tablet ownership in NI has risen from 9% to 29% and up to 45%.

Smartphone ownership jumped 10% up to 55% in a year as old mobile plans finish and upgrade cycles leave few alternatives to ‘smart’ mobiles. But beware a digital notspot is opening up of people who can’t afford or can’t manage smartphones. Consumer plans are not cheap if you want a modern handset. Online first strategies by public and private sectors can never fully replace Human-to-human interfaces. Citizen Advice Bureaux and libraries have a role. However, it’ll take pubs, schools, third sector organisations, churches and frankly everyone in the community to fill the gaps and help.

Accidental border roaming is still a thing. For me, Three Free at Home is a godsend for roaming. I’m only interested in data. But voice, texts, data used as if you were at home in Ireland, France, Switzerland, US, and 12 other countries. Hopefully a disruptive offering that spreads.

3G coverage is Northern Ireland has always lagged behind Great Britain. At the same conference last year I’m pretty sure I bemoaned how poorly mobile companies were treating NI customers. A single UK-wide coverage target for 3G operators frankly did nothing to encourage rollout in NI. In the last year our 3G coverage has risen from 61.9% to 82.1% … largely on the back of 4G rollout and the rollout of new masts.

4G licenses for traditional operators came with regional targets which will help, though they’ll only be measured at a point in the future, many years into the licence. Definitely more carrot than persuasive stick.
  • 79.2% of premises in Northern Ireland have outdoor 4G coverage.
  • Well above the UK average of 73% and miles above Scotland 57% and Wales 45%.
  • That’s must be mostly down to EE who have reached 72% of premises in NI in a year (over a third of NI geographically). Frankly, that’s outstanding.
  • O2 went live during the summer; Vodafone seem to be active too. With shared masts – like the one outside my house – their 4G coverage is in a belt that basically covers Belfast, Lisburn, Castlereagh and parts of North Down councils. Nothing in Derry.
  • Three are promising to hit Ballymena, Belfast, Lisburn and some other locations by the end of the year, but not Derry or Newry.
  • It’s not all good for EE. My mobile SIM switched from Vodafone network to EE yesterday and at home in Lisburn I’ve gone from great Vodafone signal (the mast is literally a stone’s throw away) to a really weak EE signal that barely supports EDGE.
Shared infrastructure brings its own consumer challenges. When you're inside your house with the windows closed and can clearly hear the fans of the grey base-station cabinet on the other side of the street, there are no phone numbers, no operator names, and no markings on the boxes. O2 picked up a tweet about the fault, Vodafone didn't take any interest. A third party firm installs and maintains them and ended up sending someone over from Scotland the next week to scratch their heads and ponder why the fans were all running at full speed.

RADIO

I got my first DAB radio at the end of 2000. A Psion Wavefinder. I brought it with me as a prop to the Ofcom seminar, but it remained on the stage under my chair as the conversation never made it to radio! Psion reckoned it would be a design icon. Still looks better than most DAB sets. Unfortunately, it was a struggle to use beyond Windows XP Service Pack 1.
  • There weren’t a lot of stations on DAB to listen to in NI back then.
  • 14 years later there is a noticeable improvement in the number of stations, and the variety of coverage.
  • However, quality [which was always a point of debate even back then] has tanked, with commercial channels squeezing two mono music channels into the space of a single stereo channel.
  • DAB has really turned into digital AM … with bigger batteries.
  • I drive a small car, a Toyota Aygo. The new totally revamped Aygo was launched this summer. It’s got a touch screen, sat nav, go faster stripes. But the basic model doesn’t have DAB. Nor the next model up. Only when you get near the top of the price range is a DAB set provided.
  • DAB radio is still seen as a costly gimmick.
DAB radio ownership in Northern Ireland was 19% five years ago, 28% three years ago [some kind of survey blip?] down to 24% last year and now back to 30%.
  • Way below the UK average of 44% and rising slower than Scotland and Wales who have already caught up with England. We’re behind and will get further behind.
31 DAB stations (13 BBC, 18 commercial) now that the national commercial multiplex has been extended to NI. Only 4 local commercial stations on DAB. Barrier of entry (financial and technical) needs to fall.

There’s good news with improvement in some receivers that present themselves as radio tuners and make no distinction between bands. You flick between FM and DAB and internet-streamed channels by turning the dial, oblivious to the distinction between the frequency band or transport medium. Good audio sells; DAB on its own will not.

There have been some improvements in DAB transmitters and coverage.
  • BBC transmitters in Ballycastle, Bangor and Newtownards … though they won’t help DAB reception Radio Ulster (the biggest station in the country by some measures) since it’s on the commercial multiplex.
  • But will Radio Foyle ever make it onto the DAB platform?

With DAB growing slowly, equipment that’s been on kitchen worktops for 10 years may start to fail. There may be an upgrade cycle. Which is good news for trials of DAB+ (which offers better compression and ultimately offers more channels in the same frequency allocation); the introduction of a new (dare I say, better) standard that isn’t supported by early DAB receivers may not be quite so consumer unfriendly.

Community radio is still alive with 12 station in NI still broadcasting. But the going is tough. Thirteen months after further licences awarded in June 2013, none of the new stations are on air.

TV

Northern Ireland households continue to value satellite as the main TV platform.
  • 52% of households in NI; up to 56% in rural areas.
  • (Overall NI is 11% above UK average of 41%).
  • Reflects cable network rollout being less pervasive in NI.
  • Not great news for a community TV station like NVTV which launched on Monday on channel 8 Freeview, Channel 159 on Virgin Media, but not on satellite. Only 41% of households (assuming Belfast largely follows the NI trend) primarily use Freeview (33%) and Cable (8%). Some will find NVTV online.

From memory, NI were quick on the uptake of HD television sets. But with that upgrade done, we’re thran when it comes to investing in smart TV sets. Wise in my opinion given the many competing standards, support and apps. Purchase levels are much lower than GB and rising more slowly.

We hold our own with levels of online TV/video watching.

In terms of share, the report shows NI as the only nation with share of the 5 PSB channels (BBC1, 2, channel 3/UTV, Channel 4 and Five) less than half (49%).
  • Regionally, London only area with lower share (46%).
  • I wouldn’t panic. Lies, dammed lies and statistics.
  • If you were to view RTE as PSB – but data not directly available as BARB TV monitoring doesn’t include RTE - then I reckon Northern Ireland’s PSB share would be higher and out of the comment zone.
  • However, there is a general trend that Wales, Scotland and NI have less viewing of the ‘establishment’ channels than English regions. And if you view London as a very diverse city with many people living and working there but not born there, perhaps that explains London’s overall lack of connection with the establishment too?
  • Ofcom NI’s James Stinson also pointed to the very different picture if PSB broadcaster’s overall family of channels are added into the mix. Adding in BBC 3, 4, CBeebies, CBBC, news, Parliament, E4, Move4, 5 USA etc means that the PSB broadcasters still have the lion’s share of viewing.
I’m been off the BBC Audience Council for two and a half years now, so I’m rusty. But from a BBC licence fee perspective, the figures look like Scotland and Wales continue to hit the network production targets more consistently than Northern Ireland.

While I’ve heard a spirited defence, I worry when the studio and crew of a series like Sunday Live moves to London that the production roles remaining behind are still valuable, but capacity and reputation is not being built in the sustainable manner that was intended. Network production in the nations is not yet working as intended.

MEDIA LITERACY

There’s an annex to the CMR report that looks at adult media literacy.

One disturbing chart shows claimed hours of internet usage a week.
  • Across the UK 16.9 hours but only 13.8 hours in Northern Ireland.
  • Home usage down at 10.1 hours (against 11.2 hours UK). Not too significant.
  • The big drop is usage at work or place of education, down from 4.0 hours nationally to 2.4 hours in NI. That's NI running 40% below UK average.
  • Despite the talk of the internet freeing us from our desks, rural digital hubs, the knowledge economy, Project Kelvin’s fast fibre optic link to North America, we’re either not as addicted (hard to believe) or behind in exploiting the opportunities.
Shrinking from 26 to 11 district councils (one aspect of the Reform of Public Administration) is a huge opportunity to revamp the accessibility of local government services and have a much more level playing field, sharing applications and services across councils. (After all, rates do affect the housing market, but not as much as they should.)
  • I see little public effort being made to develop local government service frameworks that could be adopted by all 11 councils to cheaply offer the services that larger (and more go-ahead) councils have implemented. And the facilities offered by the NI Direct portal fall far short of Gov.UK.
  • As my generation grows old and the one behind adopt Google Glass and are glued to screens, the pattern of phone calls to access services needs to efficiently move online.
Ofcom’s Digital Quotient research [you can still take the test] suggests that children between the ages of 6 and 7 on average have a higher digital confidence than adults between the ages of 45 and 49.

(At the moment, peak confidence is at ages 14-15.) I’d argue that standard deviation for the 45-49 year old bracket (and the subsequent age categories too) will be such that the quotient ranges are very wide.

With a subset of the population unable or unwilling to take advantage of online service provision, they must not be left behind, even in an age of austerity and taking people out of the loop.

The Millennium Generation have been blessed with new technology!

Lastly I note that Northern Ireland is falling behind contributing to Wikipedia. There is a twitter account @StormontEdits that should automatically tweets when someone up at Stormont modifies a page on Wikipedia – could be for a good reason or could be for a less. Looks like our shared wiki future is some way off.

- - -

Several parts of this afternoon’s discussion took my mind back to a week spent in Louisville, Kentucky just over two years ago. Part of a group of eleven from NI/RoI on a US State Department-sponsored Boston College-organised study trip about e-Governance, we visited a community broadband organisation Connect Kentucky. Broadband penetration in rural parts of the Kentucky state were appalling with huge gaps in provision due to cost and lack of commercial return.

When Louisville Free Public Library flooded, the opportunity was taken by its director Craig Buthod to convert space on the first floor into adult literacy classrooms and a jobs/CV club with staff teaching adult to read, and helping them prepare application forms to seek employment. The library was a place of learning and opportunity. Libraries NI do a little of this, but like bank branches, the library network is shrinking. Ahoghill no longer has a library. Nor a Citizens Advice Bureau. But it does have a health centre and pubs.

My third memory from Kentucky was a visit to the state capital in Frankfort. A very small IT team were truly agile, churning out new state government web services and citizen journeys, taking weeks to implement and deploy new applications for the Commonwealth of Kentucky that could also be reused in frameworks shared with other states.