A Brief Commentary Review of "I, Daniel Blake" and "Mining Poems or Odes"
[Mountain Shadow's two film selections for June,2107]
Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
“Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population”. It’s caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize … The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it.” - The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell
“Robert! Have you read it yet?” Archie asked Robert in Callum Rice’s short film, Mining Poems or Odes, when Robert was a young 17-year old apprentice welder, toiling in Glasgow. “If you’re not going to read it, give it back,” says Archie, “‘cause there’s dafter people than you that need it.”
So Robert reads the tattered volume given him. Then reads it again. “And all of a sudden,” the young laborer says, “it was a flash moment.”
What he’d read was The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a novel by Robert Tressell, first published in 1914. Now well over a century old, the story is a classic of working-class literature and the labor movement in Britain. In the documentary short that tells the tale through graphic imagery and the poet’s narration, the craftsman has put aside a welder’s torch for pen and paper, to forge meaning out of words:
“Finding. That was the word I had in one of the sonnets I’d written. Finding. And then I was searching, looking for, all these words. It turned out to be ‘mining.’ What a word. Mining. Imagine going down into the dirt to find a word that you’re going to elevate up into poetry. That’s mining for me. Digging in. Trying to get the proper word. Head. Heart. Pen and paper. These are the tools of my trade now. It’s the most powerful place for me. Because you see what you write. It’s a vision that becomes manifest on the page. It’s everything I’ve got. And for me … they’re almost sacred. Words.”
In contrast, I, Daniel Blake (whose dramatic role is actually portrayed in Lough’s film by a well-known British stand-up comic, Dave Johns) is no poet; but a man who’s labored many years as a carpenter and skilled craftsman. But his wife has died, and he’s had a serious heart attack, nearly falling off some scaffolding. Instructed not to work while still in rehabilitation, he’s getting government assistance in the form of Employment and Support Allowance.
But once he’s been determined fit to work he finds himself caught up in an unwieldy bureaucratic system that only identifies human beings as case numbers to be processed; rather than human beings to be lifted up when the vicissitudes of life’s happenstances have dealt them more than a blow or two.
Indifference is not impervious, however. Left without a family of his own, one irrepressibly rises up around Daniel. There’s a caring neighbor, and a paper-pushing social worker who wants to be empathetic if only the rules would allow. And of course there’s Katie, the single mother and her children.
Characteristic of Lough’s films, Daniel Blake finds himself entrapped in a Catch-22 dilemma and Kafka-esque kind of dead end. The filmmaker acknowledges they are meant to both agitate and educate. The futility of the individual raging against “the system” is a well-known universal cry for simple respect, human dignity, and common decency. Sometimes, only a can of spray paint can defiantly inscribe on a wall just three words, and a name that is not to be forgotten.
If only the carpenter from Newcastle had known the real poet from Glasgow. They are both, in their own way, ragged trousered inheritors of an industrialized revolution that has achieved great achievements in human history; while taking its toll on countless numbers of no-name others.