Review
Culture
4 min read

The real hearts of oak

The power of the lens, food and hospitality drive the hope in Ken Loach’s last film. Krish Kandiah reviews The Old Oak.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

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.  

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.