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Uphill Battles

James Moran writes: On October 25th, I sat in the audience for the final performance of the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of Andy Barratt’s play Tony’s Last Tape. This new work had been running in various places for a couple of years, including a well-received run at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015, a sold-out run in Nottingham, and a period at the Bridge House Theatre in London. But the end-of-October performance would be the last one.

As the title might indicates, the play riffs on Beckett’s drama Krapp’s Last Tape and features some direct influences from the earlier work – including the main character chomping away on a banana. I’ve seen other dramas play with the same conceit in recent years, including, most notably, Michael Laurence’s Krapp 39. But where Andy Barratt’s work Tony’s Last Tape is distinctive, and skilfully constructed, is that it features as its main character a fictional version of the British Labour politician Tony Benn, who was an MP for forty-seven years and who then achieved a kind of national treasure status in the UK between his retirement from parliament in 2001 and his death in 2014. Benn famously recorded and published an extensive set of diaries, and so the play consists of some entertaining material from those volumes, combined with the Beckettian trick of seeing an elderly Benn in the process of reviewing his life, listening back to his earlier self and setting about making his very last recording.

For the final production at the end of October, Tony’s Last Tape was staged in a committee room in the Houses of Parliament, and a group of around twenty-five vaguely artsy and political types, including myself, were invited to watch. Being staged in the Palace of Westminster, with all of its Pugin exuberance, demanded some adjustment to the play. For example, at one point the elderly Benn character was required to teeter on the desk while replacing a light bulb (an action which seemed to carry a genuine element of risk when staged elsewhere), but this moment could not be replicated in the high-ceilinged Houses of Parliament, and so that part of the script fell a little flat. However, performing the play at Westminster provided an undoubted element of frisson to the script: all of the audience members knew that much of the subject matter – Benn’s battles and alliances with various politicians – had largely been happening in the building where we now watched a fictional version of him. Spectators laughed with particular relish at the point where the script describes how the young Tony Benn – in response to the proliferating monuments to leading political and military figures in the building – decided to affix various signs to parliament to commemorate the ordinary working people who had also toiled here. Benn was apparently keen to remember those who physically built the place, and who worked in its canteens.

Something else that proved mesmerising during the performance was that Tony Benn’s son, Hilary, had come along, along with two other Benn children and a daughter-in-law. Hilary Benn himself is currently a leading British politician, and it became difficult to avoid looking at his reaction: he appeared to be laughing with recognition at the various anecdotes that were retold. Afterwards, I asked him whether the portrayal was accurate and whether he had enjoyed it. He said he had very much enjoyed the piece, but also found it weird. “Why?” I asked, and he replied that although the actor, Philip Bretherton’s, remarkable portrayal of his father’s late-stage physical shaking and distinctive voice had been spot on, the anger of the fictional character had departed from the reality. “My father was never an angry man,” said Hilary. “But I liked all the stuff about his work taking him away from his family and he regretting that in old age. That was all very true.”

One of the things that Tony’s Last Tape does very well is offer a justification for Hilary Benn’s own career. The play is a generally affectionate depiction of Benn senior’s work, but the career of Hilary is one of the subplots, with the play making clear that the son was schooled in politics at an early age by a father whose battles and triumphs taught him how to think and behave. Hilary’s political instincts are portrayed, in the play, as having been honed by his father’s experience.

Of course, shortly before this performance of Tony’s Last Tape, the real-life Hilary Benn himself had suffered a great political setback. Unlike his father, who was at first seen as a moderate and later as a member of the hard left, Hilary has more consistently been known as more of a centrist figure, “a Benn but not a Bennite” as he once put it. Indeed his work as secretary of state for international development between 2003 and 2007 won him many friends in both the Labour and Tory parties. Then, as shadow foreign secretary in December 2015, he was applauded by MPs from both the government and opposition benches when he made an eloquent and informed speech in favour of launching air strikes against the Islamic State organisation in Syria. The parliamentary applause was almost unheard of. But his anti-war boss in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, apparently viewed the speech as treachery. The leader of Corbyn’s praetorian guard, John McDonnell, commented icily that “His oratory was great. He reminded me of Tony Blair’s speech taking us into the Iraq war.”

By June 26th, 2016, the chickens had come home to roost and Corbyn had dismissed Benn as shadow foreign secretary. This was little surprise: he had been leading Labour’s fight to remain in the European Union; in one high-profile speech he had declared: “The Leave side say ‘We can stand alone’ and ‘Britain can be Great Again.’ Well, I say Britain never stopped being great and can be greater still in future.”

Once the Brexit result came through, Benn expressed disappointment at the half-hearted effort put into the campaign by his party’s leader. Having phoned around the shadow cabinet, he issued a statement expressing “widespread concern among Labour MPs and in the shadow cabinet about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of our party. In particular, there is no confidence in our ability to win the next election.” Nine other members of the shadow cabinet swiftly resigned. Yet Corbyn toughed it out. McDonnell subsequently gloated: “As plotters they were fucking useless.”

In the UK, then, by the end of the summer of 2016, there was a centre-left politician called Hilary, who had consistently campaigned for human rights and global justice, and who had been attacked from within his own party for being too right-wing and for being too hawkish on foreign intervention. Hilary Benn’s brand of political expertise – learned initially through family connections – looked suspicious to his political opponents on the far left, who preferred the apparent “authenticity” of Corbynite populism. And Hilary had, by June 2016, campaigned in a national poll that had seen the vote go against him, and had been seen off by a rival, in Corbyn, who liked to hold extremely popular meetings in order to fire up his base and secure control of his party.

*******

Two weeks after I watched Andy Barrett’s play, I was in the US, where I witnessed a rather different dramatic performance. I had opted to spend election night at the “Hillary for America Election Night Event”, which was being held at the Javits Center, a large convention centre in New York City. Those in attendance eagerly anticipated that the crowning moment would be Hillary Clinton’s victory speech. First female president! Yay! If the first black president had delivered his speech at Grant Park in 2008, the first female president would now have the chance to deliver something similarly soaring in 2016.

The official reason for holding the event at the Javits Centre – prepare to groan – was that the venue has a very visible glass ceiling. Even when the night was filled with optimism for Clinton supporters, such clumsy imagery appeared to typify the flatfooted nature of much of the Democrat campaign. For one thing, she obviously wasn’t going to be allowed to break it in any literal sense. They could hardly let her loose with a hammer. And anyway, according to all reports, the roof of the Javits Center has had rain seeping through it for years. Surely Clinton, at the moment of victory, could do better than gesture lamely towards a leaking roof? That awkward literalism looked distinctly reminiscent of the time when UK Labour leader Ed Miliband decided to stand next to a rock on which his electoral promises had quite literally been carved in stone, and which became gleefully known in the British tabloids as his “Edstone”.

A few ominous signs were there at the start of the Clinton “victory” event. The campaign had apparently, at the last minute, cancelled a planned fireworks display. In addition, TV journalists were reporting that, although many pundits had been predicting a Clinton victory, exit polls were now showing that “change” was the highest priority for US voters, by 68 per cent. Nigel Farage kept popping up on TV to declare that the evening reminded him of the Brexit vote, and Trump adopted the Brexiteer’s eve-of-poll rallying cry of “This is Our Independence Day”, something that made little sense in Britain but which sounded still more bizarre in the US context.

I also felt some concerns about the “enthusiasm gap”: eight years ago I had written in the drb about the election of Barack Obama and noted that the victory celebrations saw “many young African-American men” halting “traffic by racing in groups along the streets of central New York”. This time, the day before the election I had been sitting in a taxi with a black driver, and although we had been chatting merrily enough, he grew quiet and withdrawn when the radio started broadcasting news about the election. His only comment: “It’s all bullshit.” This was scarcely “Yes we can.”

On the way into the Clinton election-night event, the subway station at Hudson Yards next to the Javits Centre also seemed remarkably empty, although things soon got more crowded as attendees line up for the airport-style security screening. Did we need to be so heavily screened and patted down? Well perhaps: after all, during the campaign Trump had told his supporters: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks”, before adding, “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Nonetheless, once inside the crowd was in great form. The markets and the pundits agreed that Hillary was on track for victory. At about 7pm there was much singing, chanting, laughter, waving of flags. And as attendees snaked past a picture of Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that the image had been rendered so crudely that Obama looked about six stone overweight. A scattering of people also held posters, “Make America Clinton Again”, “We Kaine Do It”, “Bill for First Lady”. Together, we filed in to stand before a stage bedecked with patriotic colours and flags, and a giant screen relaying both Hillary’s uplifting campaign ads and live news broadcasts from CNN and NBC.

At the start of the event, the audience then joined in the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, and a cheeky prayer that referred somewhat pointedly to the Almighty as “Mother God”. We all whooped. At this point, when the large screen then showed the NBC feed from the Trump campaign it was actually possible to feel slightly sorry for those glum rivals. Trump’s event was being held only about two miles away at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown – the first night that both candidates had been in New York since 1944 – and it looked decidedly downbeat, apparently populated by white men looking solemn in their blood-red hats. They also looked, it must be said, like very rich white men. After all, as John Cassidy has since pointed out, the comparatively rich plumped for Trump: roughly two-thirds of the population who earn more than $50,000 dollars a year voted for him; whereas people who earn less than $50,000 opted for Clinton by eleven percentage points (52 per cent to 41 per cent).

By contrast, Clinton had been attempting to cobble together a “progressive coalition” of African-Americans, Hispanics, women and college-educated whites. Around me, only the latter two groups seemed to have arrived at the Javits Center in large numbers. In the security queue on the way in, at least four people around me had their noses in books: demonstrably college-educated. A number of mothers had evidently arrived with very young girls; the children were heavily adorned with badges and Clinton caps. A large number of gay and lesbian Clinton supporters had also turned out, as had other less populous groups. One man, for example, walked past wearing a heart-shaped badge in green, white and gold bearing the slogan “Irish Republicans LOVE Hillary”.

Then a group of African-American mothers took to the stage, all of whom had seen their children killed. First up was Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, a forty-three-year-old man who was killed after New-York policemen put him in a chokehold because they suspected he was selling cigarettes. Carr described how Hillary Clinton had taken the time to speak with Garner’s grieving family, pointing out that Clinton was the only presidential candidate who had done this. Although the speech was poignant, Carr proved a witty and uplifting speaker, concluding her oration by leading the crowd in a chant of “Ra Ra Ra!” Next to the stage came the mother of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old African-American boy who had been shot dead by George Zimmerman in Florida during 2012. Again, the audience greeted Martin’s mother warmly.

However, shortly after that speech, the crowd started to sense that things were going wrong. The news feed had showed that the crucial battleground of Florida would be very close, but it was now increasingly edging towards Trump. The crowd at the Trump event across town now appeared to be having far more fun. Some of them appeared to be drinking bottles of beer. We did not have beer.

As things began to slide, a parade of Clinton surrogates took to the stage to deliver increasingly threadbare but still encouraging messages. New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, stood up and said lots of encouraging things about Hillary, although he managed to say even more about his own vision for New York. “Yeah, because tonight is all about you, Bill,” someone near me shouted.

A flurry of more bad news came via the news reports on the giant screen: Florida’s projection was being replicated widely across the other swing states. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, appeared on the stage, and gave a slightly bizarre speech in praise of immigration during which he encouraged us all to reach our hands into the air in order to feel the spirit of his dead father. Large numbers of the crowd began to sit down: never a good sign. Nonetheless, we all perked up when Katie Perry appeared onstage and promised that Hillary would undoubtedly be elected the first female president that evening. Yet there was something a bit unnerving about the way she concluded her oration by leaning close to the microphone and declaring that in some western states the polls were still open and that people out there still had to get out to vote for Clinton. It felt like she was making the wrong appeal in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Perry evidently didn’t feel like singing, but her 2013 song “Roar” had been adopted as a Clinton anthem, so we were then treated to the song being played, remorselessly, on a loop:

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter
Dancing through the fire
’Cause I am the champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar!

By this stage, few of us were roaring.

When the Democratic senator Chuck Schumer took to the stage, he gamely tried to lead the crowd in a chant of “I do believe that she will win.” The chant was beginning to sound more like a prayer than an expression of confidence. “I do believe that she will win.” We crossed our fingers. “I do believe that she will win.”

By about 11pm, the crowd had visibly thinned: parents had taken their red-eyed children home, and many other weary workers had obviously headed for the subway. Campaign ads continued to play on the screens, but they began to look increasingly ironic: Bernie Sanders, for instance, pledging onscreen his enduring love and support for Clinton. Perhaps the saddest late-stage live appearance on stage was that of Khizr Khan, a Muslim-American whose army captain son, Humayun Khan, died in Baghdad during the 2003-2011 Iraq War. Khizr Khan had appeared at the Democratic Convention in the summer, and had issued a powerful challenge to Trump, who had famously promised to ban Muslims from entering the country. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?’ Khizr Khan asked Trump at the convention. “Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America – you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.” In the summer, Khan had scolded Trump: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

However, at the Javits Center on election night, a more distracted-looking Khan had delivered a slightly rambling address, still pleading for tolerance and inclusion, and pointing out the need to set such an example for immigrant schoolchildren who might be bullied at school. But by this stage the writing was on the wall. As Khan finished his speech one Clinton supporter leaned towards me and said: “Making him do that tonight … just about sums up the whole of this election.” Most of us now realised that Hillary would not be appearing, and then, late in the night, her ashen-faced campaign manager, John Podesta, arrived on stage to tell us that “we’re not going to have anything more to say tonight”. On the way home, I felt sad for the street vendors with their worthless piles of “President Hillary” T-shirts. Somehow, as with Brexit, the unthinkable had become the inevitable.

*******

In fairness to Donald Trump, in the wake of the results he gave a relatively gracious early-morning victory speech, praising Clinton for her public service. But by the following day, the TV broadcasters had begun reporting the comments of his advocate, Omarosa Manigault, who declared: “It’s so great our enemies are making themselves clear so that when we get into the White House, we know where we stand […] let me just tell you, Mr Trump has a long memory and we’re keeping a list.”

Faced with this kind of bizzaro-Santa-Claus, the left will need to be hard headed. “Don’t mourn, organise!”, as Joe Hill is supposed to have declared. Encouragingly, Hillary Clinton conceded defeat, but she did so by declaring, “This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

She and her supporters could, perhaps, learn from her namesake in the UK. By the time that Hillary Clinton was conceding electoral defeat, Hilary Benn had manoeuvred himself into position as chairman of the parliamentary Select Committee, which could potentially muzzle Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations. On November 3rd, the High Court in London appeared to agree that parliament had the right to control elements of Brexit. It is, we must continue to believe, possible to lose a major battle and yet still win a war.

Meanwhile, at the Javits Center in New York, the glass ceiling is still in place; but perhaps, I like to imagine, it is still leaking.

11/11/2016

James Moran’s New York Diary from the first Obama victory is here: http://www.drb.ie/essays/new-york-diary