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Not just men

November 20, 2011

Last week, still emotional from watching the excellent NTS Production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s ‘Men Should Weep’, I tweeted in praise: “A thousand thoughts launched on a sea of memories”. A bit flowery, perhaps (Undoubtedly, Ed), but nevertheless an accurate reflection of how I felt after the performance.

The original revival of this unjustly ignored work was from the much lamented 7:84 in the early eighties, and I always regretted missing that. I suppose I approached this production with some trepidation, as its reputation, at least in my eyes, had preceded it, and I was fearful of being let down.

I needn’t have worried; as is reflected in the reviews it was great performance, no weak links, a super set and some unforgettable moments. Lorraine McIntosh played Maggie, the complex lead female, with convincing brillo; Michael Nardone captured that gut wrenching combination of authority and hopelessness in an impressive performance, and there was a stand out cameo from Jeanette Foggo. I think a lot of the show’s energy came from two of its younger performers – Louise McCarthy, as Jenny – the daughter who knows she needs to get away but can’t quite shake off her family ties, and Charlene Boyd – as the scheming wife of the feckless son of the house, who plots her way to better things, devoid of any feelings Their frustrations were powerfully displayed in the clash of aspiration versus poverty and despair.

However, I don’t really want to write a review, but rather to reflect on some of those ‘thousand thoughts’ the emotions raised by the play stirred up in me – and the role of memory in who we are and how we react.

This is not a ‘we were poor but we were happy’ memoir – an approach which I’ve always found rather insulting – both to readers and to the people who were there. I don’t see any evidence that poverty brings any kind of happiness – though I do understand that there are many who politically would like to think that was the case.

I had a happy childhood, which was probably possible because I wasn’t poor. In my early years, we stayed in a two roomed flat, the lack of car, fridge or television would probably suggest a kind of poverty now, but for the times we were comfortably working class I guess. So I do have memories of tenement living.

I can remember sleeping in my cot in the living room because we had visitors; they got the double bed, in what was always known as ‘the room’ and my parents slept in the bed that was kept made up in the ‘recess’, an alcove curtained off the main room. As in the set for the play, I recall the basic cooker in a corner cupboard and the sink at the window with a view out to the back green. Although it is fifty years ago, I can tell you that Grandma Hodge lived upstairs, Johnny Leggatt, a widowed insurance man, lived on the ground floor with his two daughters, two sets of neighbours – the Robinsons and the Somervilles – emigrated – one to Australia the other to Canada; and the other ground floor flat was lived in by brother and sister, Johnny and Maggie – who always had Haggis on Tuesdays and fish, generally hake (Oh no Maggie, not hake again!) on Fridays. I have all this knowledge because that was how tenement living was; like it, or not, you knew each other’s business – as in the play, when the wife battering upstairs is common knowledge to all, met with raised eyebrows, a shake of the head, and a feigned ignorance in the victim’s presence.

Inevitably, with this knowledge, came responsibility – even if it was only openly acknowledged with the ‘Your turn to clean the stair’ sign hung on the doorknob at regular intervals.

The play’s title ‘Men should weep’ is undoubtedly ironic, for while their role was difficult enough, the role expected of women in the poverty of the thirties was almost impossible. Homemaking, nursing, morale boosting, skivvying and mothering hardly covers the range of expectations placed on them – by family and society. They were in an unwinnable and prostrated position, they couldn’t hope to do it all, and that was without any possibility of forging an independent role for who they thought they were, or wanted to be, themselves.

There’s a line of political thought which would tell you that, from these conditions, was forged the women’s movement, led by women who had watched their mothers struggle with overwhelming demands and vowed to escape that trap. They would tell you that, despite the road still to be travelled, advances have been made, women have more freedom, and equality is openly espoused. This may be true; I am conscious that, as a male, writing on such matters, leaves me open to charges of being patronizing, ignorant, or, I suppose, chauvinist. However, I will plough on, convinced I have a right to my reflections.

The problem is, when I put down the books on political theory and look around me, it seems that women have not been liberated. Indeed, it seems that the cry of the thirties: “How and why should I be expected to do all of this?” is still very much in evidence.
True, it is perhaps generated from a slightly different place, but it still focuses on homemaking and domestic issues, the balancing of childcare and professional responsibilities, home and work, and social and family. It hasn’t been liberation – it has been the teasing possibility of added choices – without the structure to make them truly attainable.

In the play, the scenes where Maggie’s neighbours come in, on the scrounge for a cup of tea and a blether, are often played for comedy – but they speak volumes for the societal attitudes of the times. When Maggie’s man’s in work and she gets a smart new hat, the women affect to ignore it, jealous of such opulence; they are happy to nod and wink behind each other’s backs and always ready to take the huff with each other in some real or imagined slur on their character. However, there is an underlying support network here, a shared experience. The battered wife knows that they know, though it would never be admitted to her face – they will always leave her that dignity, and though tea and biscuits won’t stop the husband’s drunken rages, at least Maggie’s table provides some sort of partial refuge in an age when interference with such family issues would be completely unthinkable. Likewise, in dealing with her sick child, the demands of her old mother-in-law and the distancing of her children, Maggie at least knows she is not alone in her troubles. The strength of shared experience and the, sometimes surly, bounds of family, provide at least a context for dealing with hard times and sorrows.

It sometimes feels like today’s society cannot provide such supports. ‘Successful’ men and women will have their gym membership, their golf clubs, their book groups and suchlike, but, unless lucky enough to live in an area with a high proportion of community activists, the most vulnerable in our society, and I still suspect these are mostly women, have fewer and fewer networks to support them – increasingly so, as family life becomes more and more unravelled.

In 2008, when the anniversary of the 1968 Paris Riots was being celebrated, there was much discussion on why, ultimately, the rioters, who clearly had De Gaulle’s government on the ropes at one stage, failed to change French society and, as it seemed, faded away. The answer suggested, eerily reminiscent of much later adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, was that the instigators of the riots had put much energy into why they wanted change, but little thought into what they would do to replace the corrupt regime they detested. In plain speak, they didn’t know what they wanted if they were successful and so they lost the ground they had gained.

My memory of the women’s movement in the sixties is similar. They were clear in their rightful demands for equality, and strident in their determination that women should be released from the shackles of what was termed domestic drudgery, and gain equal access to the jobs market and career paths. So far, so good.

On what would happen after that, there was less detail. Furthermore, they allowed themselves to be portrayed in the media, as anti-men and confusing equality of gender with suggesting men and women were the same. In simple language, they were proposing equality of opportunity and a radical change in the way society operated but failed to nail down how this could be achieved. In a world that was still very much run by males they attempted to sideline them and promoted them as a solely negative influence. They eschewed the chance of a progressive partnership going forward and handicapped any progress they could have achieved. I remember visiting Greenham Common as a gesture of solidarity and being mystified by a very mixed welcome, as if my views and support were somehow not required, because I was male.

In the end, a little like De Gaulle in 68 and Saddam after the first Gulf War, the means of fighting the battle allowed those who were in control to patronize the views of the ‘rebel’ forces and ultimately control what was achieved and how it was attained. For those reasons, women still fight to have equal opportunities, many are not on equal pay, and the balance between home and work, however you want to categorise it, is as much as a concern as ever – for many women, and not many men.

The question is: if you engineered a change from a women’s ‘role’ being solely domestic to their accessing careers outside the home, how did you expect the work in the home to be done, who was going to take on the many tasks that were previously assigned to the wife or mother? The obvious answer is for men to do their share, so why antagonize and sideline them, to reinforce them in their feeling of being ‘threatened’? And if men’s role is to change as well, must you not campaign for a change in their working conditions. In that way you promote change and partnership, liberating both genders from the previous expectations.

You can, of course, blame men for this and tell them to pull the finger out, help more at home, and get over it. Which is a bit like the coalition forces in Iraq telling Saddam to straighten up and fly right – not having promoted the changes in society to make that inevitable.

I don’t know if Thatcher actually believed there was ‘no such thing as society’ but it certainly suited her money grabbing agenda to promote the idea to the people who would least benefit from its disappearance. The survival of the fittest is an odious modus operandi and, as we are seeing on a daily basis, the have’s will always defend their possessions and advantages, generally at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.

During ‘Men should Weep’, one of the songs sung by the excellent Arthur Johnstone, is ‘A Handful of Earth’.

We’re the first ones to starve, we’re the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And we’re always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat’s about.

To me, the only way to overcome this cruelty an selfishness is for men and women to operate in partnership. Previous tactics made it easy for the privileged to divide and rule, and the have’s can still be heard on a regular basis in their complaints about even the minimal attempts made by EU regulations to treat men and women as equal in homemaking as well as work situations.

Both Maggie and her husband suffer in Men should Weep, poverty doesn’t reserve its hopelessness and powerlessness for one gender and not another. There are different pressures it’s true, and it would be fair to say that men often had/have more escape routes, but the lesson of history is that we are in this together.

Scotland is suffering right now because the poor are marginalized, women are struggling to balance lifestyle as well as economics, and men are often pigeonholed into an emotionless facade that leads to mental illness, under the pressure of failing to share or declare their feelings while attempting to preserve a macho display. Whether we term it sectarianism, football violence, or drink related ill health, the wrongs in Scottish society are plain, and the causes deep.

Men should Weep revived thoughts of the ill and the good in the earlier years of the twentieth century. Possessed of very little, the parents’ grief was not caused by their lack of belongings, but by the lack of opportunities for their children – be it in health or employment. The comfort that was to be had came from family, friends and neighbours. How ironic that we should have moved on in terms of wealth as a nation in the intervening years but still find ourselves worried by our children’s futures, still with large numbers struggling to make ends meet, and still being told that possessions will bring happiness and that we should support the ‘wealth creators’, even to the detriment of the most vulnerable. How devastating that, along the way, we have managed to walk away from a lot of the supports that used to exist even in the poorest parts of society.

I don’t think there is anything ironic about the play’s title in these times. When we look at how we have abused our chances, dismantled our society, and wasted our resources, I think we should all weep.

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