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We’re not all working yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad…

We’re not all working yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad…

the_conversation

As you can probably already tell, I’m more supportive of this government’s policies than perhaps the previous author was. I’ll assume you’ve seen the figures, saying that we currently have the lowest unemployment since 2009, and depending on your political allegiance, you’ll either think that’s a good thing, or evidence of systematic number-fudging by the current government.

As is now tradition, the second paragraph of an opinion piece is supposed to reference some obscure work of fiction, or academic paper, which summarises the arguments made in the article more succinctly and eloquently than I could ever hope to do, while also lending me the air of being both more knowledgeable and well read than you, the reader.

I’m not going to do that.

Maybe it’s because I disagree that this argument ought to be centred on idealism, we’re not going to settle the capitalism vs. socialism debate in the 700 or so words remaining in this piece. Similarly, it might be because I think it’s highly disingenuous to make reference explicitly to a story, or other analogous device, because there will always be a degree of misrepresentation of the side that the author doesn’t disagree with. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t actually read anything that I would dare quote in support of my argument – after all, I read Biochemistry.

Regardless, if we are to have a debate about whether life in Britain is getting better, it helps to know what we should look at.

Should it be employment figures? Possibly not – as Kate rightly pointed out, there are many issues with looking at official statistics, derived mostly from how ‘unemployed’ is qualified by their definitions, and the fact that the huge number of ‘discouraged workers’ are simply excluded from the total. That’s not to say that unemployment figures have no use, but perhaps they are not the most accurate measure of wellbeing.

Should we perhaps then take a look at the average wage? Surely if that rises, then it’s a good thing? Well, although that seems somewhat of a truism, it is important to remember once again that everything is relative, and in this case the cost of living may well be increasing faster than wages increase – inflation certainly is.

Perhaps the most useful indicator of specific wellbeing, assuming that the employment figures are relatively constant, is the average disposable income, adjusted for inflation. After all, if that goes up, then surely life is genuinely getting better?

And guess what: it has. As David Cameron said at Prime Minister’s Questions a few days ago, disposable income is higher than it has ever been in this country. And this doesn’t even account for the imminent raise in the income tax threshold, a change that means that you won’t start paying income tax at all until you earning go above 10,000 pounds per year. While this change may not seem like much, if we’re complaining about the Conservative-led government leading to a fuel bill increase of some 70 pounds per year, then a policy that will have practically no direct impact except giving the worst off in society more than 700 pounds is surely something to be lauded?

Except of course, this figure wasn’t mentioned at all in the 1300 word indictment of growth and increasing employment figures, that bizarrely mentioned union membership and unfair dismissal cases as evidence that “Britain’s not working yet.” It seems a bit unfair to write off the fastest post-recession job recovery in 40 years as predicated on constant and increasing abuse of workers at the bottom rung of the ladder, unless there is actually some evidence that millions of people are only being kept in work by companies taking advantage of low union membership, or the inability to complain about their working conditions.

Chart 1

 

The point to be made is that it’s perfectly possible for living standards to increase and for people to become financially better off, even if incomes aren’t actually rising. Furthermore, if we’re talking about the cost of living, what could be done more than freezing council tax, fuel duty and increasing the small business rate, all of which have been enacted?

Ultimately though, this debate is about jobs, and whether or not we, as a nation, are back to work. And to that, the resounding answer is “not yet”. However, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t moving in the right direction, for all of Labour’s predictions that “They have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million jobs” or the constant stream of pessimism leading to the record of 30 million people currently in work in the UK. However, if the Office for Budget Responsibility is to be believed, and they’ve consistently under-estimated growth, then we’re set to have unemployment fall to 6.9% over the next two years, and for inflation to follow suit, settling at around 2%.

If by then things aren’t looking up, then we can probably have another crack at this discussion, but just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, neither does it mean that we’re due another winter.

The article Spiro is responding to can be found here.

FEATURED PHOTO/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

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Does Spelling Matter?

Does Spelling Matter?

In light of the recent publication Does Spelling Matter? by Magdalen College English professor Simon HorobinThe Oxford Student thought we’d have a go at answering that question ourselves.

Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section at the bottom of the article.

YES:

Many of us will agree with James J. Kilpatrick that “spelling is one of the outward and visible marks of a disciplined mind.” There are, of course, many arguments to be made for the importance of spelling. We can assert that ‘proper’ spelling — dictionary spelling — makes for linguistic clarity, that it allows us to grasp words’ meanings  so that we can then ponder the implications of those meanings. Alternative spellings are a distraction; they draw our attention away from the very meanings that language was created to convey.

Scarcely anyone would claim that there is any intrinsic significance in the way words are spelled. The particular spellings we have adopted in our modern English are more or less arbitrary. We read in the dictionary that the word “coffee” was derived from the Italian “caffe”, which was derived from the Turkish “kahveh”, which was in turn derived from the Arabic “qahwah”,  or perhaps even the Ethiopean region of Kaffa.

Every word has a history which makes certain spellings more etymologically justified than others, but the biographies of words are just as arbitrary as their present spellings. It does not matter how many f’s or e’s we decide to spell “coffee” with; what matters is that there is a consensus among readers and writers as to how the word should be spelled. One of the reasons Johnson decided to write his famous dictionary was his realisation that, with the English language evolving so quickly, the literatures of one generation were destined to become unintelligible to succeeding generations. The changes the English language underwent during the 13th and 14th centuries — when English was a welter of Germanic dialects absorbing Latinate rhythms and words from French — were immense. It was in a state of perpetual transformation.

Spelling takes on new significance when we consider it in this broader historical sense. Think how many writings — literary and historical — have been made inaccessible to us in their original forms because of the changes wrought on our language over time. Consider the enormous number of “modern translations” in extant of our Old and Middle English texts. Many are bold enough to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original, but even the boldest depend on lengthy scholarly notes to decipher precisely what is meant. And let’s not even get started on Beowulf

 NO:

Mark Twain once said: “I don’t give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.” For Twain, spelling was a form of personal expression; it was a creative act. “We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike,” he said. “Sameness is tiring, variety is pleasing.”

Twain would probably have appreciated the whimsical spellings of Chaucer and other medieval English poets. In an age when there was no consensus on spelling, long before the Oxford English Dictionary  and when oral tradition prevailed, Chaucer was free to spell the same word several different ways, even on the same page. In the twelfth line of the Canterbury Tales prologue he spells “pilgrimage” the way we do today; in the twenty-first line, he spells it “pilgrymage.” Similar cases abound in his works.

While it may be true that standardised spelling makes it easier for us to understand the writings of both our contemporaries and our predecessors, it is also true that formalising the spelling of English words can detract from the richness and diversity of our language. Spelling in present-day French language is typically strictly regulated, less amenable to the constant adaptations that shape modern English. Some may argue that language is made poorer by the refusal to embrace changes that define our time and place in history. Surely language should not be fossilised, and although it may be exceedingly difficult to understand Beowulf and Gawain in the original, we cannot deny that there is a certain beauty (and, of course, historical significance) in the droll spellings and melodic cadences of both works.

Whether spelling matters, then, raises a more fundamental question about our language. Which is more important: allowing language the freedom to evolve and be adapted to the peculiarities of different eras, even if it means that the productions of that era will inevitably become unintelligible to us? Or stamping all words with a common form to preserve a unified and intelligible body of writings throughout the ages? Should we be willing to incorporate into our dictionaries the ever-increasing body of slang and neologisms to which twenty-first century technologies have given rise (gotta go, c u later, brb). If so, will such words be meaningless to future generations? If not, we are denying ourselves the fullest expression of our age.

It is a problem not easily overcome, but one that leads us to consider the things that we value most in our language.

PHOTOS/turonistan, happyplace, juice2

A Little Night Music Preview

A Little Night Music Preview


Set in fin de siècle Sweden, A Little Night Music is Stephen Sondheim’s Tony award winning musical which, under the helm of the co-directors Griffith Rees and Jack Noutch, already promises much for the Oxford Playhouse in sixth week. This preview was shown in the crowded environs of Somerville College Chapel but, despite the lack of atmosphere granted by this 1930s, white-washed building, the mood of the musical was immediately present as the lieder chorus began to tune up – all part of the overture – and the orchestra started to play. The lieder act somewhat like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the musical as it goes along and of course providing fuller harmonies in the big numbers. Although some of the vocals were a little shaky, that was more than excusable in the morning and with a further two weeks to go; the tuning was almost perfect, which is definitely the most important thing.

The main cast of this production are set in motion by the tuning fork of Madame Armfeldt – a character given in this production a mystical responsibility to guide the characters. They all work seamlessly with the lieder chorus to bring out the story of Fredrik Egermann, a lawyer who has married a younger, ‘trophy’ wife to discover that she is unwilling to lose her virginity even to her husband, propelling him back into the arms of his former lover Desiree Armfeldt. Things are complicated by Desiree’s new, jealous lover Count Carl-Magnus who begins to suspect Desiree is not attentive to him alone, whilst his wife Charlotte looks on scathingly.

These four actors work together wonderfully, delivering well the humour of their situation – especially a scene involving Fredrik in the Count’s bathrobe – whilst also aided by the orchestra in building tension. Aleksandr Cvetkovic displays impressive vocals and gravity in the soldier’s uniform of the Count, sparring particularly well with Richard Hill as Fredrik, a character I wish that I could perhaps have seen more of in the preview. Claire Parry as Charlotte brings bitter humour along with the sadness of her role as the cheated wife and raised several laughs, whilst Georgina Hellier was totally natural in her role, playful and daring as a woman having to fight for her survival. The entire cast came together to sing ‘A Weekend in the Country’ which, with its complicated polyphony of lines and multiple stories happening together, was performed with real passion to end the first act.

Finally, to the core of this production – the orchestra was fantastic as the ever-present background music leading the musical onwards. They blended perfectly with the singers despite this being their first rehearsal with both the orchestra and the actors, something I only discovered after the preview. I was not given the name of the conductor, but I offer him my praise! This musical has much potential and I will certainly be going to see the finished product in the Playhouse.

A Little Night Music plays at the Playhouse until Saturday of 6th week.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kysXoCtU8O4
&w=300&h=270]

PHOTOS/Anatole Oudaille-Diethardt
PHOTO/Richard Simmons

When the rainbow is enuf

Saturday 11th –Wednesday 15th June (excluding Sunday)

The Macmillan Room, The Oxford Union

7.30pm

Tickets £7 (£4 for Union members)

Footprint Theatre, in association with Picnic Productions and the Oxford Union, presents, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf, a choreopoem written by the African American playwright and poet, Ntozake Shange.

Shange has been hailed as one of the great American writers of the 20th century. In this piece she takes inspiration from the endless myths created around women who are labelled by their colour, gender and sexuality from antiquity to the present day and from stories passed down through generations. Through a series of monologues, some funny, some deeply painful, Shange explores identity, survival and individuality.

I first discovered the play eight years ago and was immediately struck by Shange’s ability to reach across the boundaries of race, sex, culture and experience as she explores what it means to be human as we face the trials of daily life. Combined with the play’s direct, unforgiving, but equally celebratory nature, I was instantly inspired and wanted to put together its first production in Oxford.

Ntozake Shange began writing the poems that make up the play in 1974, with the aim of presenting the realities of seven different kinds of women growing up in America during the mid twentieth century. She states that the play is an exploration of “their triumphs and errors, and their struggle to become all that is forbidden by their environment, all that is forfeited by their gender, all that they have forgotten.” The characters in the play remain nameless and assume hegemony as dictated by the fullness of their lives. They are each identified only by a colour of the rainbow, displaying Shange’s use the term “coloured” as a metaphor for emotions and states of mind, rather than simply skin tone.

This production aims to bring to life Shange’s poetic and political reflections on identity, sexuality, abuse, racism, and choice, issues that cannot be constricted by period or place. The characters directly interact with the audience as they share the stories of their survival through poetry, music, dance, and their intimate personal experiences, whilst each woman strives to find her voice in a world that silences her.

Maisie Richardson-Sellers

Merton adopts Charley’s Aunt

Charley’s Aunt

3 stars

7th Week Wednesday – Saturday

7.30 pm (+ 2.30 pm Saturday)

Merton College Gardens

Tickets £8/5

Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt seems, at first, a natural choice for the Merton Floats’ garden play. It is easy to imagine characters like Lord Fancourt Babberley once walking through the surrounding halls, even in the play’s late Victorian setting is the fictional St Olde’s college. There is no attempt to hide the ironies of this production, and even the script seems to be in on the joke: a guffaw of laughter greeted the line, “These amateur theatricals have taken up a great deal of my time, but next term I really intend to do some work.” This sentiment, delivered as much to a sympathetic audience as to the other characters on stage, really exposes the light-hearted tone of this production. It is important to note that from the opening moments of this play it is clear the aim is not, and never will be, serious.

Indeed, when it becomes apparent that the play revolves around the adoption of drag by the aforementioned ‘Babbs,’ it’s easy to feel caught in a cross between Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. The script doesn’t quite hit those heights, and a lot of the initial parody is lost through the slight detachment of the actors from their roles. The play may be a farce, but the humour should stem from the actors’ unbelievable stupidity. At times it feels a tad over-rehearsed, reactions coming before they are due, but at others quite the opposite is true. In the first scene between Jack Chesney, played by Max Mills, and his scout, Brassett, the characterisation of Jack was undermined when couldn’t remember his lines. Since the part of Brassett was taken up by Frederick Macmillan only a few days before the preview, such slips are understandable, but it still left Jack looking more like an abusive master than the charming foppish type his is meant to be. Mills hits his stride later on and his comic potential is best presented in the scene between Jack and his father, where he and Joshua Harris-Kirkwood pull off extraordinary similarity of physicality and facial expressions as they each push the other towards marrying a millionaire.

As the title suggests, the play hangs on the mysterious Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez, though not the one you might expect from the program. Instead Babbs, played with aplomb by Peter Swann, takes the role and performs it with a clownish comedy that holds the humour of the first act together where it threatens to wear thin. Switching between soap opera melodrama and cavalier flippancy at the drop of a hat (or the retention of it by ill mannered guardians), Swann challenges Mills’ position as the hero of the play with an easy charm. Indeed, with such loud characters dominating the stage the quiet, tentative performance given by Charles O’Halloran as Charley is welcome and provides some genuinely touching notes. The cast is certainly talented, yet there always seems some distance between the actors and the characters they play, as though they have forgotten that they are supposed to be showing us the comedy of them, not telling us. Occasionally the upper-class accents adopted all-round fall through, and some performances drop a little when not centre-stage. However, these problems are all minor, and could be ironed out over the next week before the play opens if Finola Austin proves as thorough a director as she appears. I have no doubt it will end up a pleasant evening of levity. Just don’t expect it to be serious.

Frankie Goodway

Pointedly dramatic

BT Studio – 7th Week

14th-18th June

Tickets: £6/£5

Student productions have several things in common with the marriages of young lovers. They generally begin with high hopes and the best intentions but are ill-advised, and end with a lot of shouting, weeping and occasionally a blunt object flying at traumatised observers.

However, Ed Baranski’s play Blood Runs Thicker is not his first foray into the conjugal jungle, and joining him for this production is his friend and several times director Andrew Wilkinson. Although Baranski’s play is based upon the development in the relationship of a newly married couple when strange things start to happen in their home, there is a strong sense, as the writer and director of the piece sit together chatting about the work, that it is they who are the real married couple of this production. Not only are these two seasoned in their own fields, but they have grown and worked together, and are further blessed with a seasoned cast all fresh off the boards of the Oxford Playhouse from their parts in Call of the Wild.

Yet the new direction in which Wilkinson and Baranski are looking is a risk. Practised at dark comedy and slightly off the wall work (one of Baranski’s more niche productions was his twenty-four hour play about someone trying to get over a wall), Blood Runs Thicker is set to be a play that is intimate, intriguing and teases the audience with twists. Not that it is without moments of Baranski’s blacker sense of humour, the writer assures. Yet these two are also used to working with big casts in big spaces; running an intense show in a small space with a close-knit cast of four will be a real challenge. It is a challenge, however, that they look more than set to meet. Ever praising their excellent (and apparently very beautiful) cast, this actor-director partnership promises to be even more than the sum of their respective talents (which are not inconsiderable) largely because they have a chemistry which is both charming and electric. This play will be fresh ground for both Wilkinson and Baranski, but like the best marriages, they have learnt to share the burden. Wilkinson is firmly focused and definitely wears the proverbial trousers, but his genuine affection for Baranski, and the regard in which he holds him as a writer is clear. Baranski’s slightly ruffled hair, un-tucked shirt and unwillingness to take himself too seriously hints at his slightly looser approach, but his laughter at Wilkinson’s wry remarks and the complete trust with which he has abandoned his script to his friend also indicate a very special relationship between these two.

So, if you’re interested in seeing what is hopefully only the end of the beginning for a very promising duo, and a production that’s as coy about its twists as the writer and director aren’t about the physical attractions of their cast, watch Blood Runs Thicker.

Megan Lynch

Can’t run Barefoot in the Park without stubbing a toe

Some of you may be familiar with the play, Barefoot in the Park, by the American playwright Neil Simon. It was a huge success: nominated for three Tony awards and eventually becoming one of the longest-running Broadway shows in history. To others, as was the case for me, the play is perhaps more famous as the eponymous 1967 film adaptation, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, though it is on the play, rather than the film (which differs somewhat), that this production is based. The plot revolves around two newly-weds, Paul and Corrie Bratter, and their first forays into married life. Corrie is more lively and bubbly than the hard-working and more cautious Paul, and these differences in character lead to a frequent clashes of personality and a passionate and tempestuous relationship. This production emphasises the light-hearted fun and comedy value of the play, which sounds like an especially appealing proposition for seventh week of Trinity term, which for many is dominated by exams, revision and/or a woeful lack of work ethic.

The play is also interesting on a deeper, socio-cultural level (I realise that this may not be the best way to keep the attention of those of you for whom, at this point, any word even remotely academic induces an allergic reaction, but nevertheless): one of the most substantial changes in social mores of the past half-century has been the change in attitudes to pre-marital cohabitation. In this play, the newly-weds are living together for the first time and are thus having to make certain compromises and come to terms with their differences in character and outlook. Nowadays, needless to say, this is much less frequently an issue. That is not to say, however, that the play is by any means irrelevant to the modern day: most people will be able to relate to Corrie and Paul and their love, passion and, inevitably, occasional friction. Furthermore, their quirky-bordering-on-crazy neighbour, Victor Velasco, and Corrie’s well-meaning but somewhat meddling mother, Mrs Banks, will be recognisable, and perhaps even familiar, characters to many; and the affectionate, light-hearted humour of the play makes it accessible to all audiences.

One of the best things about the play, according to director Enni-Kukka Tuomala, is its realism: Neil Simon gives us a balanced, human portrayal of the two main characters: neither is more right or more wrong, neither is the better person in the relationship; and we can relate to and sympathise with both of them. This realism is even more poignant when one takes into account that the play was composed when the playwright himself was a newly-wed. In many ways it can thus be seen as a personal reflection on married life, from the perspective of someone trying to come to terms with his first experience of it, and indeed on relationships generally. But its focus is wider than that: Barefoot in the Park not only provides a window onto the culture and society of 1960s New York – which in itself will be appealing to many – but also explores the theme of two young people trying to find their way through life and love: a theme which is both universally relevant and endlessly fascinating.

Hannah Polonsky