What a difference a day made, and it gets better

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The Independent Online
Enchantment and politics aren't natural bedfellows. So, when he wrote an essay last year calling for "The Re-enchantment of Politics", EU think-tanker Marc Luyckx came across as a cockeyed optimist. His challenge to politicians to reinvent themselves as "a kind of incarnation of the common good" and to foster humankind's "hope for wholeness and for reconciliation" hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of being heeded during those dark days when Neil Hamilton and his dinosaur cronies stalked the earth. But who could possibly have anticipated the difference a day would make? With any luck, the country will now have a bloody good reason to celebrate 1 May as Labour Day. The rhythms of change are contagious. Even those who didn't vote for the winning party are catching the beat. And the world watches in wonder. Last week, a group of Clintonites, including the ex- White House chief of staff George Stephanopolos, were in town on behalf of Athens's Olympic bid. They were flabbergasted at the speed with which Labour had left the starting blocks. "Blair'll have to suck up to the press," they wittered on to me. It was hugely satisfying to point out to them that this isn't the US, where people no longer expect their government could ever be an agent of change. Instead, we have a new foreign secretary who lodges human rights at the heart of British foreign policy. It is very comforting - hell, it's exciting - to hear a government minister saying things you've been saying for years. It means that what was once derisively labelled "alternative" thinking has entered the political mainstream. Marc Luyckx says: "Re-enchantment begins when the people feel they can reconcile nature, time, meaning, soul, spirit and body", which still sounds like a formidable agenda for the political arena. But at least an opportunity for reconciliation exists that didn't exist before. And re-enchantment? All it takes is a leap of imagination.

If you want a direct experience of how imagination can transform reality, take a trip to north London where the Chicken Shed Theatre Company has been enchanting audiences since 1974. I was re-enchanted at an awareness event a few weeks ago, and I could scarcely breathe with the sheer joy of what I was seeing. Chicken Shed describes itself as "inclusive theatre" because its 450-strong company of young players integrates the able-bodied and the disabled. Contributions don't stop with the physical: one girl with cerebral palsy so severe she was written off by specialists as a hopeless case came up with amazing lyrics. I could only wish those specialists a seat at a Chicken Shed performance. The seamlessness is extraordinary. So is the complete lack of sentimentality. Where you might expect a tug on the heartstrings, there is simply the collective delight in ability, with all the kids working together, singing, dancing, creating a huge theatrical experience. Named for the humble premises in which it started out, Chicken Shed has obviously expanded over the years, but it is always in need of money to fund that expansion. Hence the awareness event. The company is contactable at 0181 351 6161.

I've felt flattened by all the information that has been flooding in about plutonium over the past few weeks. For all the election elation, the appointment of Jack Cunningham, erstwhile President of the Friends of Sellafield, as Minister of Agriculture is a potential nerve-jangler. I could only wish all yesterday's men from the nuclear industry could be reminded of what LIFE is all about. Play with their kids. Take a holiday. Buy tickets for Chicken Shed. Or slap on some Sophie Tucker music. Creativity that challenges preconceptions is like a drug for me. Sophie sure challenged. A plump, plain graduate of the vaudeville school of hard knocks, she became a huge star with her bawdy stage performances. She was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as "the last of the red hot mommas" for her raunchiness. And, despite the occasional threat of obscenity charges, her size and self-mockery ensured she got away with things a more physically attractive performer couldn't have. Today it's hard to assess the sensationalism but you can't miss the sass. Sophie was speaking out for women's self- determination decades before feminists took up the cause. All this, and she pissed off the Nazis, who smashed her records and banned their sale throughout the Reich. My kinda gal!

When people say they will do something, I believe them. So, when Shell said human rights and the environment were part of its business principles, I felt the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa might not have been in vain. Then this week Shell's board defeated a resolution from its own shareholders to make those principles a reality, just a day after fresh reports from Nigeria confirming the continuing suffering of Ken's Ogoni people at Shell's hands. In my last column, I asked what Shell's resistance to transparency in its business operations could conceivably hide. Is it things like this? That Shell says it has not operated in Ogoni for four years, yet independent researchers found the company's legacy in drinking water polluted by oil effluent to levels 680 times higher than permitted European levels? That those same researchers also interviewed former Nigerian policemen who were part of Shell's own armed police force and who talk of arsenals of automatic weapons and undercover operations against Ogoni leaders? Shell needs to transform its culture if it wants to break free of its Ogoni past. It says that Cor Herkstroter is already the man doing the transforming. Apparently he thinks best while jogging. He's going to have to run a whole lot faster if he wants to start making sense. He has a dilemma. When Robin Cook shows that govemment can lead the way with ethical policies, is the truth inexorably beginning to dawn for a business like Shell? It doesn't look like it.

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