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The real hearts of oak

Krish Kandiah is a social entrepreneur building partnerships across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He is the founder of The Sanctuary Foundation.

The power of the lens, food and hospitality drive the hope in Ken Loach’s last film. Krish Kandiah reviews The Old Oak.
A man and a woman sit in a cathedral pew and incline their heads towards each other.
Ebla Mari and Dave Turner play Yara and TJ.
BBC Film.

In the dusty back room of the rather rundown Old Oak pub in County Durham, northeast England there is a faded black and white photo. It shows the very same room packed full of hungry families sharing a community meal together.  Below it is written a sign:  

“When you eat together you stick together.”  

Pub Landlord Tommy Joe Ballantyne explains to young Syrian refugee photographer Yara that the picture was taken by his uncle during the miner’s strike when the community made it a priority to feed each other’s children no matter what.  

This is the pivotal scene in Ken Loach’s latest, and some suggest, final film: The Old Oak. The multi-award-winning director has produced another masterful piece of cinema which, although set in 2016, provides vivid social commentary on our current cost-of-living crisis and our struggling immigration and asylum system.  

By setting the film in an old colliery town facing its own challenges with social deprivation, Loach allows those communities who feel left behind by the rest of the country to raise legitimate concerns about immigration. The film powerfully portrays local people expressing frustration at being used as a dumping ground by government for ex-prisoners while also feeling trapped by unemployment, falling house prices and rising costs. Into this community then arrive refugees fleeing the brutal war in Syria.

The film is not just depicting some sort of Hollywood romantic utopia. It is powerfully celebrating what is happening in communities all around the UK. 

Yara arrives camera in hand, snapping photographs of her family’s arrival on a bus. They are met with hostility from the beginning. We see the conflict through the lens of Yara’s camera - black and white photographs that foreshadow the photos of the miner’s struggle she will later discover on the wall of the pub’s back room. We see another photo – the one Yara’s mother displays pride of place in the lounge – of Yara’s father who is lost in the brutal Syrian prison system. These photographs provide beautiful symbolism throughout the movie signalling the themes of solidarity and resistance.  

We see in the film the power of the camera to change the way that people see their world and view others in the face of hatred. We see the power of food to unite divided communities. We see the power of hospitality in the face of hostility. We see families from both communities caught in impossible situations.  

What this film does most brilliantly, in the rich dialogue which sounds less like a script and more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, is allow the strongest arguments against refuge and asylum to be raised. Ultimately this dialogue opens the eyes of the two communities, and enables them to discover that they have so much more in common than they might have imagined.  

I have witnessed these eye-opening moments connection myself. I have seen Afghans resettled to hotels find a welcome into a village community through integrated cricket matches. I have seen women with no common language forge friendships over a picnic. I have seen children change from sullen and suspicious to animated and inseparable in minutes with the help of an X-box. I have seen the beer and pub industry offer support and help to Ukrainians. I have seen churches open their doors and their hearts to Muslims from Kosovo and Syria.  The film is not just depicting some sort of Hollywood romantic utopia. It is powerfully celebrating what is happening in communities all around the UK.  


The mining community, that once lost jobs, financial stability and heritage, eats alongside the refugee community – those who have now lost their homes 

That dusty pub back room is transformed to the bustling hub of community life once again, as families from different worlds befriend and support each other over shared meals and recognition of their common mortality and humanity. The understanding that both communities have experienced displacement has brought them together.  The mining community, that once lost jobs, financial stability and heritage, eats alongside the refugee community – those who have now lost their homes, their country and their heritage.  

In a beautiful moment of reconciliation in the film, the Syrian families present their new neighbours with a banner made in the style of the traditional mining banners used on gala days – the ones that took pride of place on marches just behind a brass band. The banner is inscribed in both English and Arabic with the words that have drawn the communities together: Strength, Solidarity, Resistance.  

I believe the film, like the banner, offers a rallying cry to those who see it. It helps us understand two of the most marginalised communities in Britain at the moment – the impoverished towns of the North, and the refugees and asylum seekers. It challenges us to find ways to come together with empathy and hospitality. It proffers significant mutually beneficial consequences – love, joy, peace, hope, friendship, forgiveness, reconciliation - when we learn not only to live together, but to share food, time and lives together.  

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De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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