Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sick and injured refugee children forced to flee Syria now forced to put lives in more danger by returning

The harrowing, heartaching tales told by those Syrian refugees who have managed to flee their homeland to relative safety across any border can at times at least be tinged with a little relief.

Those faint hopes of returning home one day, mind, may be optimistically expressed while with little realistic prospect of fulfilment for quite some time - especially as the West continues to stall and Bashar Assad to tease.
Which makes it all the more distressingly astounding that many families might be putting their already-fragile lives in danger by venturing back into Syria’s badlands – even, sometimes, several times a week.
Yet that is the case for so – and too – many of the estimated 1million-plus Syrian refugees finding at least some shelter in neighbouring Lebanon, as revealed today by Amnesty.
Sick and wounded Syrian children who managed to escape the civil war-torn country are being forced to return due to a lack of help elsewhere.
The influx of refugees into neighbouring Lebanon has now become so great that many hospitals are turning away those in need.
These include families with cancer-afflicted children, or those who have suffered severe burns, bullet wounds or kidney failure, Amnesty found.
Some are even shuttling back and forth, as often as twice a week, for continuing treatment such as kidney dialysis.
They are risking their lives in the face continuing bombardment of towns and cities by President Assad’s regime fighting rebel forces.
Amnesty International investigators found distressing cases such as that of 12-year-old Arif, suffering from severe burns and infections to his legs.
He only qualified for five days’ worth of treatment funded by the UN Refugee Agency, under UNHCR’s current guidelines - and still needs another 13 operation.
These cannot be carried out in Lebanon due to a shortage of specialist equipment, according to today’s 36-page report named ‘Agonising Choices’.
Other Syrian refugees pondering possible trips back to their homeland include cancer sufferers unable to afford - or find - the treatment they need in Lebanon.
More than 1million registered Syrian refugees are now living in 4million-population Lebanon, though aid agencies believe many more are there unknown to authorities and agencies.
The official tally is expected to reach 1.5million by the end of this year, loading more pressure on Lebanon’s undeveloped facilities.
The country’s health system is privatised and expensive, leaving many Syrians dependent on UNHCR help.
Yet while the United Nations has appealed for £1billion support for Lebanon this year, only 17 per cent of the necessary aid has been provided.
Even those refugees who meet the tight criteria for who receives hospital treatment still have to pay one-quarter of the costs themselves.
Some 11 per cent of 3,170 refugee families recently surveyed by UNHCR said they had returned to Syria for medical reasons.
One father told Amnesty he and his nine-year-old leukaemia suffered son have to pass through ten checkpoints between their Bekkaa valley refuge in Lebanon and a hospital in Syrian capital Damascus.
Amnesty International’s Audrey Gaughran said: ‘Hospital treatment and more specialised care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient.
‘Syrian refugees there are suffering as a direct result of the international community’s shameful failure to fully fund the UN relief programme.’
The UN is appealing overall for £4billion for the Syrian relief effort this year, having received only about 70 per cent of the £3.2billion deemed necessary in 2013.
The UK was last year’s third largest donor, offering £231.2million – almost £6million more than Germany, France and Spain combined, and behind only the US (£694.4million) and the European Commission (£356.2million).
Other major powers have been so stingy as to be laughable, were the situation not so grave – including Russia and China, resolute UN Security Council opponents of meaningful anti-Assad sanctions or aid access improvements.
Those two are now obstructing moves to refer the Syrian regime to the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes – having previously helped Assad play the West by appearing to make chemical weapon concessions, even as conventional rockets and bombs keep raining down.
Figures released earlier this week suggested at least 160,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad three years ago and his regime’s crackdown in response.
Some 9.3million people are thought to have lost their homes and be in urgent need, whether still stuck inside Syria or streaming into neighbouring nations – only now intermittently returning, it seems.
A country – no, a region – in chaos can perhaps seem too weighty and complex a problem to try solving, yet for all the mealy-mouthed words offered by the rest of the world a little more direct pressure and help might just be more welcomed.

By those inside or outside Syria, or somehow just about surviving adrift in-between.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty..."

“Well, I do feel that even beats Henry IV Part One…”

Ah, Hampstead (Theatre). Not only would such a critique be pretty unthinkable anywhere else.

Why, even unlikelier was its delivery as an exhilarated audience dusted red-white-and-blue ticker-tape from their sleeves and tottered out in a daze through auditorium doors.

Behind them echoed the last clanging chords from a finale greeted not by polite applause while settled in seats, but tottering to feet and rocking and jiving and whooping along in a feelgood evening ending to “Sunny Afternoon”.

That is, the newly-opened (and soon West End-shifting?) musical based on the songs of the Kinks, approved and overseen by often-crotchety Ray Davies and with a script by credible veteran Joe Penhall – a seeming safe pair of hands compared to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Queen-ly collaborator Ben Elton.

The Shakespeare comparison may, however, be a little too much of a stretch – even if the raw emotions of such sibling rivalry between Ray and Dave Davies might well have offered material enough for intense Jacobean tragedy.

There seems plenty to carp about, however, about this script.

Rave reviews have been won, from the Observer to the Mail, the Independent to the Express. And, yes, it is a real feelgood evening – as suggested by so many leaping aloft for the final scenes, to not only sing but swivel along.

This is a show that sounds great – well, how couldn’t it, being based on the music of the Kinks? And not only the hits, but later album tracks stealthily snuck in such as even the obscure first verse of "Maximum Consumption" when discussing mere meals? But all are performed with mighty power and finesse, by a squad-rotating band ("Ray's dad" leads a bravura "Dead End Street" before sitting down in the background and subtly finger-picking...)

That lesser-known one works well enough as a singalong-ish track performed showtune-style, but what struck this viewer – and keen Kinksian geek – was how many other non–hits got factored in on-stage.

Of course playgoers will expect – and duly receive and appreciate  – such obvious classics as "You Really Got Me", "Tired Of Waiting For You", "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" and/or "Waterloo Sunset".

Yet a production seemingly so predicated on celebrating the London of the Swinging (mid-)Sixties not only made canny characterful use of later songs readjusted to earlier period scenes.

Well, it recognised just how ruefully judgmental of the Sixties were the Kinks’ songs of the Seventies.

The bitter LP Lola Versus Powerman… came out in 1970, only a few months after perennial favourite – if subversive – single “Lola” reached number two and made them appear more relevant than they had for several years.

That album failed to chart and even now has less of an approving hipster reputation than 1968’s (admittedly also-excellent) Village Green Preservation Society.

And yet its songs, with their strangely-specific finger-pointing over contracts or affectedly-blasé comments on how to get on Top Of The Pops, seem somehow topical while made central to this latest production.

And yet, despite replicating such ingenious music so viscerally well, one of the main problems of "Sunny Afternoon" at Hampstead Theatre is the actor playing Ray Davies.

Not that John Dagleish is no good. Quite the contrary – he is excellent, both singing and strumming. He just never convinces as, well, Ray Davies. More like the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner – at least, back in his Sixties-obsessed days, rather than with the Fifties quiff he currently sports.

Flat-capped and chippy is not sufficient to capture that character, mind, and the storyline the audience is invited to accept – that Ray is an insightful idealist, with a disturbing upbringing yet with ingenious insights always frustratedly bubbling under – seldom comes across when speaking, only ever when singing. Thanks to those ever-expressive songs themselves.

Why, at one point the poor actor playing Dave – otherwise raucously unrestrainedly – is forced to intone the words: “It used to be about the music…”

Presumably we should all feel grateful he never felt compelled to add something along the lines of: “Why don’t we put on the show right here?”

(Another potential cause for discomfort is the caricaturish Jewish agent they attract [though the same performer later does pummelling drumming duties], his R-rolling rhoticisms recalling to mind Ray’s exaggerated impression at the end of “Top Of The Pops” or else the opening lyric of the otherwise-brilliantly-witty “When I Turn Off The Living-Room Light”.)

George Maguire as Dave Davies, by contrast, completely convinces as that real-life, ever-(/too-)sincere figure, capturing that half-unhinged yet technically-brilliant personality.

The whole play could do better to explore further, and not only glancingly or belatedly, that love-hate relationship between those two brothers (albeit explored better already by Ray’s own 1966 song ‘Two Sisters’…)

Charismatically as Dave comes across, there feel obvious indications this is a Ray-ruled creation – exemplified by showing their first “You Really Got Me” recording with Ray not Dave shredding the amp with a knitting-needle for importantly-coarser effect. Despite all other reports to the contrary.

Fair enough, perhaps.

This is Ray’s show, and a good deal better than many musicals merely constructed around a big band’s hits.

For all the obvious Sixties stuff, most affecting are the Seventies reworkings – such as "Sitting In My Hotel" for Ray’s lonely touring duties, or "This  Time Tomorrow" for Ray’s lonely loneliness duties, or "The Money-Go-Round" for Ray’s lonely cash-counting fretting….

What the show does get across well is not merely how Ray was the brains of the band – and, yes, how emphatically this Ray Davies-promoted production makes just that point – but also how younger bro Dave could justly claim to be the heart, the soul and the, er, groin of the group.

Ray’s first wife, his teenage bride Rasa, plays a key part here – met at a gig in Bradford, her Yorkshire accent played for laughs while strikingly set alongside her parents’ expounded history fleeing Lithuania and the Nazis not that long beforehand.

Her most memorable contribution, however, approaches the end as the band haltingly work through a new R. D. Davies creation that would turn out to be 1967’s – hey, all-time’s – finest single, “Waterloo Sunset”.

“Ah, it makes me cry!”, Rasa cries, on hearing just the first few bars.

“Ah, it makes me cringe,” might think a few who hear such a cheesily-delivered riposte.

And then, and yet … the song itself starts. The bassline saunters down. The guitar lick kicks in.

And then, those lyrics. Allied with, well, that melody.

No matter the circumstances, such a song can never fail.

Ah, it makes me cry.

In a grand way, of course. Whether on-stage or on record, all day and all of the night.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Time's inevitably up for Tim - but little-mourned Sherwood did as good a Tottenham job as he could

Novice boss Tim Sherwood seemed so keen to convince as Tottenham head honcho, his five months in charge at Spurs felt at times like a crash-course in experimental multi-tasking.

Why, he tried to be many different managers in his bid to be not merely 'the interim' - or 'the inter-Tim' - but, well, 'the one'.

There were the match-by-match costume changes, from dapper black suit to shabby shellsuit or most memorably that now-infamous gilet.

And on the field itself, his selection technique was one characterised by the element of surprise, each newly-announced XI bemusing many onlookers.

The only apparent constants were the unshakeable Hugo Lloris in goal and the rejuvenated Emmanuel Adebayor up-front, as Sherwood alternated between full-backs in midfield, wingers up-front or in the holding role, and defensive midfielders left invariably on the bench.

Nabil Bentaleb was promoted from youth-team anonymity to central midfield against the top-four likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool - only to be discarded again for the season’s final months.

Yet for all his lack of coaching badges - and, at times, tact - Sherwood did have a positive impact in his short and unexpected reign.

Adebayor’s 14 goals in 25 games summed up just how frustrating his earlier absences and tantrums have been but also pointed to the folly of his previous exile by Sherwood’s predecessor Andre Villas-Boas.

AVB’s many defenders online point to the greater solidity his side showed from the season’s beginning, urging greater patience as last summer’s seven new signings settled in.

Yet while the 1-0 home defeat to Newcastle felt freakish, with opposing goalkeeper Tim Krul blessed by his own reflexes as well as Spurs’ misfiring strikers, the 3-0 White Hart Lane trouncing by West Ham was more indicatively depressing.

And the 6-0 and 5-0 thrashings that followed, at the hands and feet of Manchester City and Liverpool respectively, suggested a loss of spirit and structure despite AVB’s safety-first mindset.

Sherwood’s promotion brought instant domestic cup departures yet also enthralling away victories, including at Old Trafford - ending Manchester United’s resurgent six-match unbeaten run and perhaps tipping David Moyes inexorably into the turmoil that would overwhelm him.

Sherwood’s Spurs scored an average 1.82 goals per game, with 1.39 conceded - compared to AVB’s 1.07 for and 1.31 against.

As he now moves on to whatever his second managerial role will be - with WBA, Norwich and Brighton all mooted – he can also claim a dubiously-meaningful Spurs record of 1.91 Premier League points per game.

His own playing days at the Lane ended amid rancour, directed from him towards then-boss Glenn Hoddle and from fans towards a player who seemed to spend most time berating team-mates for his own haphazard passing.

Sherwood’s previous rifts with Hoddle and ex-Blackburn manager Roy Hodgson - who nevertheless remains full of praise for his former skipper - have been held against him amid complaints about his treatment by players and the Press.

His outspoken remarks may well have helped talk his way out of a lengthier spell at Spurs - though his fair-enough criticisms of Tottenham’s many under-performing players carried much truth.

Maybe too much, in a footballing climate where to ‘lose the dressing-room’ is a cardinal managerial sin.

And yet many fans opposed to him from the start have perhaps been too quick to wax indignant at even minor barbs or even jokes, such as quipping ‘Que?’ when asked about Erik Lamela’s English.

Meanwhile, while AVB grumbled about the White Hart Lane atmosphere, Sherwood has been at pains throughout to praise the supporters and gush about how privileged he felt to manage this ‘great club’.

Too-privileged, sure. He should not have needed to be given the job when he was, in yet one more example of Spurs’ panic-stricken improvisation.

But he deserves a little more respect and gratitude than to be booed even at Ledley King’s testimonial on Monday - and not to be simply dismissed as ‘Dim’ 'Deadwood'.

Sherwood was the first ‘Tim’ to manage an English league club since Derby County’s Tim Ward, succeeded in 1967 by a certain Brian Clough.

Sadly, Tottenham’s owners Enic - especially trigger-happy chairman Daniel Levy - have given little indication that the tenth manager of their 13-year ownership will come anywhere close to such calibre.

We go again…