Is Valerian A Metaphor For Europe!?

“In the 28th century, special operatives Valerian and Laureline work together to maintain order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the minister of defense, the duo embarks on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where diverse species gather to share knowledge and culture. When a dark force threatens the peaceful city, Valerian and Laureline must race against time to identify the menace that also jeopardizes the future of the universe.”

I feel this one might be self-explanatory but it’s true that like Valerian, Europe has often been overwhelmed by dark forces. There were the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century along with fascists in Italy and Spain. And prior to that Europe regularly went to war with itself: the First World War (1914-1918), Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Austro-Prussian War (1866) and so on and so on. It’s a miracle really to think what Europe has achieved since 1945, that despite countries’ worth of difference, hostility and prejudice we are that bit more peaceful. And now, Europe is often a place where diverse peoples gather to share knowledge and culture. Of course, that dark force of misplaced nationalism, racism and violence has never gone away. Political groups of the right regularly flirt with the values that their more extreme-right friends hold, whilst the extremists themselves, including the Neo-Nazis, just carry on being dangerous and violent. Europe, like Alpha, is under threat.

Now I could end this post by saying that Brexiteers fall into the category of the dark force. However, I am aware there were so many different reasons people voted for Brexit: some wanted a socialist revolution (the ‘Lexit’ vote), some didn’t know what they were voting for, some wanted to stick a middle finger up at the elitist government, some voted believing that Brexit would mean no immigrants, some were privileged Tories who like a bit of national pride and, of course, some were extremists, racists and fascists. I don’t find it too difficult to comprehend these different reasons for voting Brexit, despite my vote to Remain, and I imagine that Alpha, like the EU, has its fair share of internal problems despite all the exchange of culture and knowledge. However, I think it important that we all acknowledge the existence of these dark forces, for they do exist and there is violence. This acknowledgement could be a rallying call that unites Brexiteers and Remoaners around something beyond a hate/love of the shape of bananas, EU bureaucracy and the Common Agricultural Policy. As Syria’s civil war continues to tear the country apart, as the government of Chechnya stands accused of sending gay men to die and be tortured in a concentration camp and as racial violence continues in the States it is clear that the dark forces are amassing and we must come together to stand against them. With Brexit the EU will change dramatically but Europe can still remain united. So I hope we will all jump in our spaceships and send metaphorical laser cannon blasts at all those nasty baddies.

Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.

This House: Comedy, Tragedy or Farce?

It’s the all-singing, all-dancing play about British politics in 1974 (well, there’s a little bit of singing and dancing but not much). The Labour government can barely keep it together and the Tories are about to turn to that infamous Iron Lady. Behind the scenes at Westminster the Whips are doing their best to keep their parties in shape and to keep their MPs voting for the right side. It’s harder than it sounds given that some MPs think it more important to fake their own deaths, to actually die, to stand by their principles and/to to defect to the other side. What ensues is simultaneously funny, tragic and farcical as history plays itself out and the Labour Party, the last bastion of the working classes, crumbles from within and without. It’s also far too close to home what with faffing over an EU referendum, Scottish devolution and austerity. I laughed but I also cried. Now, I could go on to write a review of the play but I basically wouldn’t be saying anything the guardian hasn’t already said, it really is great.

Instead, I want to briefly reference an interview with the writer of the play, James Graham. He says that “theatre is a democratic space. You still have to bring people together collectively into a room, you lock the doors, you turn the lights down and you thrash it out live, there and then.” I think this is a wonderfully idealistic view of what theatre can do but I think the irony is that if the theatre is a democratic space it’s got more in common with the sort of farcical democracy we witness in This House rather than any ideal version where we actually have equality. Firstly, you have to pay to get into the theatre, which immediately prioritises the space for the rich. Much like Britain with its private education, increasingly private healthcare and astronomical public transport fares. Not to mention the wealthy politicians who can afford houses and flats in London making it much easier to access the Houses of Parliament. The poor barely scrape by and settle for limited view seating if they’re lucky enough to get in. And, yes, our democracy is like being locked in a room as any vain attempt to escape – say by voting for the Lib Dems or Greens – is met by the Yale lock of the two-party system. And just like at the theatre we are forced to silently watch as those on stage, the politicians, play their own games at the expense of the nation. We’re the ones who get thrashed. Meanwhile, the script is off-limits to the audience apart from once in every five years when we’re tricked into believing we can edit it. And our rounds of applause are reserved for two specific moments, the interval and the end – not much wiggle room there.

I think Graham has a laudable view of the theatre as a genuine tool for change-making within society. But, in our time of relentless consumerism, I fear that theatre is gobbled up as greedily as television and cinema. We’re often going in to escape, not to deeply engage with our inner values, and will come out with much the same view of the world with which we went in. However, I do believe theatre can contribute to culture change but as the phrase suggests it is going to take more than one very good play to change the culture. It’s going to take lots of plays asides many other forms of cultural interaction. As Graham says “we should be getting together like we used to and talking about things.” I couldn’t agree more but I’m not sure that is necessarily going to happen in the imposed silence of a theatre’s auditorium.

Murdering Nostalgia With Agatha Christie And The BBC: The Witness For The Prosecution

The words ‘Agatha Christie murder mystery’ might conjure up images of posh people gathered together in a chintzy drawing-room sipping tea whilst some sleuth – normally moustache twirling Hercule Poirot or knitting Miss Marple – runs through all the red herrings before revealing whodunnit. These are cosy affairs where murder doesn’t involve much blood and good always conquers evil (normally after two or three deaths). A sepia toned view of the 1920s and 30s in Britain where the Empire is represented by a gruff colonel type who might drink a little too much and everyone else is having a whale of a time (apart from the corpses). All this changed last night when the BBC gave nostalgia a cup of poisoned tea and watched it die a grim and bloody death (spoilers ensue).

The writer Sarah Phelps adapted the Christie short story and play The Witness For The Prosecution for the BBC. It was a Christmas special except the only thing special about it was its relentless misery. The smiling, diamond encrusted mask of 1920s London was peeled back to reveal a world of grim austerity, inequality and chest infections. A world in which murder is a desperate and unhappy thing committed by desperate and unhappy people or, in this case, unapologetic sociopaths. The moral core of this story was a rotten one as people were left reeling from the effects of the First World War. Lovers, Romaine and Leonard Vole, were so scarred by the atrocities that they didn’t bat an eyelid when it came to committing and covering up the murder of rich heiress Emily French (played by Kim Cattrall  from Sex and the City!). John Mayhew, the coughing solicitor, guilt ridden after the death of his son in WWI, is spectacularly duped by the murderous couple (as are we the audience!) and proves key in letting them get away with it. He even gets Emily French’s maid hung for a murder she didn’t commit even though she did drown Ms French’s cat. Naturally, when he finds out what has happened he walks off into the sea. This adaptation reveals nostalgia to be a lie – the First World War was not great, wealth does not buy happiness and there’s often lots of blood when someone gets bashed on the head. Personally, I am glad the BBC killed nostalgia because it can be a dangerous thing.  Conniving politicians regularly use it to justify prejudice – if we vote Brexit we can take back control and Britain can be Britain again, free of foreigners and full of tea, oh, and wasn’t the Empire great despite all the slavery and oppression. Or we can banish the Muslims and make America great again. But the nostalgic myths they play on of bygone golden ages are just that – myths – half-hearted stories based on lies and a sprinkling of selective history. The past is no halcyon era of smiles and good fortunes it was often dangerous and unhappy.

However, it’s not just nostalgia that Phelps and the BBC killed it was also hope. The victims die painful and bloody deaths, the villains get away with it and the goodies get hung or drown themselves. There will be no saviour on a white horse or twiddling his little Belgian moustache. The closest we get to redemption is the brief smile on Mayhew’s face as he walks off into the sea, perhaps he has found peace after all, asides from the fact that he will soon be dead. However, there is one brilliant moment before killers Leonard and Romaine drive off into the sunset. Leonard mentions to his newly married wife that he’s worried she might get bored of him now that they’ve got all the money. “Don’t be tiresome, Leonard,” she replies curtly, leaving him with a worried look on his face – yup, the lives of murderous sociopaths might end richly ever after but I doubt they’ll end happily ever after. It seems this Yuletide adapation has a lot to teach us about our own times – 2016 was a hopeless year for the goodies and it really seems as though the baddies are going to get away with it. And I’m not sure 2017 is shaping up to be much better. Yet it is one thing to tear up our nostalgic views of the past but it is quite something else to offer any hint of a different future, a future in which there will not be wars, inequality will be no more and the villains might be held accountable. I feel this is beyond the scope of Sarah Phelps and the BBC, which is why we cannot let them get away with murder.

The Trouble With A Gay Dumbledore

A few months ago I was getting excited for Star Trek Beyond, especially because (spoilers!) I’d heard there was an LGBT plotline in store. The character of Hikaru Sulu (played by John Cho) was being written as gay and whilst George Takei (the first actor to play Hikaru Sulu and gay activist) was rightly not that impressed it was still a change from the usual warpspeed sequences and other Trekky things I clearly know little about. Of course, what I really wanted was a gay Captain Kirk but I was told that would never happen because a Blockbuster movie with a gay protagonist just wouldn’t do well financially. However, unlike movie producers I am not in this for the money and I think it’s high time that LGBT folk of all ages had some good role models to look up to. Unfortunately, as one would predict, Hollywood is doing a terrible job.

Not only was Star Trek Beyond a very average film, the gay plotline lasted about five seconds. We saw Hikaru Sulu give another man, presumably his husband, a hug and then say hello to the young girl that is presumably their daughter. The scene was so bland and vague that the other guy could have been his brother and the little girl his niece. Apparently an actual man-on-man kiss was edited out because in the future there can be people who are entirely green and giant cities floating in space but same-sex PDAs are a big no-no. Meanwhile, numerous fans were up in arms about the “controversy” of the gay plotline and I think that just goes to show how far we still have to go. For now I’ll make do with a gayish hug.

Another example of a missed opportunity is, of course, Dumbledore. Not only did J.K. Rowling make him gay after the event – i.e. after the books had been written and films produced in which there was no hint of his sexuality – but it’s a shame that the only gay member of the Potterverse was a lonely old man who ends up dead. Fantastic Beasts could have made up for this but instead Dumbledore’s crush, Grindelwald, is too busy acting inappropriately around teenage boys and plotting the downfall of muggles. Yup, the other LGBT character is also a smörgåsbord of queer clichés and stereotypes. As for the four protagonists of the movie – all cishets (cisgendered heterosexuals, for more on this, click here). But, I hear you say, surely one of them could have been bisexual. Perhaps but just like with Dumbledore if a character’s sexuality is not made explicit then it just comes across as the ‘norm’, i.e. straight. But, I hear you say again, why should a character’s sexuality have to define them, surely they can be quiet about it? Of course they can and I agree with both points but the problem is you’re probably straight and you probably don’t see your sexuality as a definitive feature of you because you haven’t been routinely discriminated against for having a sexuality other than straight. You’re not regularly made to feel self-conscious or ashamed of your sexuality and if you are it is not because you are of the LGBTQIA community (it is for another equally grim reason that I will blog about in another post). And nor do you have to endure the crass plotlines of a relentlessly straight Hollywood as you search for inspiring role models. So, as far as I’m concerned Captain Kirk can wear a pink dress, have a limp wrist and sing show tunes whilst Dumbledore can have rainbow eyelashes, leather trousers and a biker boyfriend and still neither can be reduced to or defined by their sexuality. It’s the imaginations of straight people that are the limiting factor here not how people choose to express their sexuality, if they are even give a chance to. In the meantime it’s left to the fans to make some pretty creative stories of their own about their favourite queer characters.

Wear A Red Ribbon Folks, It’s World AIDS Day

What!? I hear you say, why do we need yet another day about something? Didn’t Trump just get elected to power on International Day Against Fascism and Antisemitism. Well, let me put this to you starkly: since the discovery of the virus in 1984 over 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS. As the World AIDS Day website says, it is “one of the most destructive pandemics is history.” It is a plague that has killed many, is killing many and will kill many. With it comes another plague too, one of apathy and stigma, and this you can help fight by educating yourself and those around you.

I could carry on like this, relaying to you facts you can read on Wikipedia or one of a number of websites. I could tell you all about the inspiring film “How To Survive A Plague” which tells the stories of numerous passionate activists and expert scientists working together to develop cures and treatments for HIV and AIDS (on tonight from 6pm at The Cinema Museum in south-east London, go, go, go). I could also tell you about the greed of pharmaceutical companies and their indifference to the suffering of millions. I could tell you of the stigma and hate burning in the hearts of so many people, be they pedestrians on the pavements, preachers in the pulpits or presidents in the White House. I could tell you how ongoing ignorance condemns so many to needless misery and death. Yes, I could tell you these things but I think you can find them out for yourself.

What I will tell you is that I love someone who is HIV positive. And the fact they’re HIV positive makes no difference to me. Instead perhaps that I admire them a little more for the courage with which they meet the world – a world whose track record on this cause is deeply shameful, save for those activists, scientists and all their supporters. And there’s still so much ignorance and prejudice out there, which means those who are HIV positive are not treated positively. So this World AIDS Day, have a heart and wear a red ribbon for those who have HIV and to commemorate those who are no longer with us. Go educate yourself too, it’s all here (and watch the movie tonight) and share this post, please. And remember this, that the HIV and AIDS pandemic is more than just a plague it is also a war, for when cruel hostility, bigotry and indifference result in the unnecessary deaths of so many then I’d say that’s mass murder. I wish that it didn’t have to be like this, that people were not forced to pick sides in this fight, but until my wish is granted the battle rages on. Please pick the right side.