Review: Ken Loach’s ‘Sorry We Missed You’

By John Flynn

The redoubtable Ken Loach has followed up his Palm D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake with a devastating drama about a family struggling to make ends meet in a precarious working environment. Along with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has crafted a very necessary film about working life for so many people today.

Ricky has gone from ‘shit job to shit job’ since the crash of 2008 derailed the family’s prospects. A constant plaintive refrain heard throughout the film by different family members is: ‘I just want to go back to the way things were’. Ricky takes a job as a self-employed delivery man believing (probably out of desperation) that it will finally give him the means to succeed. But, in order to put down the deposit on the van of £1000, he convinces his wife Abbie, a home carer on a zero-hours contract, to sell her car. From these desperate beginnings things soon begin to get worse. This brilliantly acted film will leave you emotionally spent as you watch this increasingly frazzled couple attempt to battle the exhaustion of long hours in high stress conditions and the fall-out of neglect at home.

There is a scene in the film that nicely weaves the personal with the political and provides a wider background to the film. Abbie is visiting Mollie, a favoured care recipient. Against the rules of the agency that she works for, (you’re not supposed to be friendly with your clients!) they are enjoying a fugitive moment of companionship sharing photographs with one another. Mollie shows her photos from the 1984 miners’ strike where she helped run the canteen. They are treasured memories of friendship and solidarity but from a tragic defeat for the labour movement. Abbie’s funny photographs are from her courtship with Ricky (at a rave), from a happy time when it seemed that they were going to buy their own home. But, the collapse of Northern Rock put an end to their hopes. It’s only in the photographs that Ricky and Abbie look happy. Now, they are exhausted and struggling to cope. A moment of marital intimacy is aborted because Abbie says she feels so sad she could cry for a week.

You always get a character in a Loach film who articulates very convincingly the point of view of the class enemy. Here, we have Moloney, ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’. He thinks that a company’s shareholders should erect a statue to him because he runs such a brutal operation for them. In the interview at the opening scene he gives Ricky some insidious language about this new economy, ‘you don’t work for us; you work with us’, but, before long, we see the brutal reality behind this rhetoric. Drivers are constantly monitored by their scanners, on severe time constraints, liable to sanctions, if they fail to meet targets. Ricky is horrified when his friend gives him a plastic bottle for emergency piss stops. But this is reality for the armies of delivery drivers frantically meeting the orders from companies like global giant Amazon. In an interview, scriptwriter Paul Laverty sardonically quipped, ‘I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos pissing in a plastic bottle because a meeting went on too long!’ When Ricky does need to use the bottle one time to relieve himself, he is savagely beaten and robbed. As he sits in the hospital waiting room with Abbie waiting to her from the X-ray results, Maloney rings him to inform him that he is liable for over £1500 because of the robbery. This, after he had incurred numerous sanctions after missing work because of domestic issues with his son, Seb. The reality of the new economy: all the costs to the worker.

Ricky and Abbie have two kids, Sebastian, the eldest and Liza Jane. Though Liza, Jane looks distraught at what is happening to her family (one terrible moment, when she bursts out crying after confessing to something is utterly heartrending), she is performing well in school. Sebastian, or Seb, is in trouble at school. He seems completely disabused of the entire system, and shoplifts spray paint for his graffiti art. The scenes with Sebastian and his friends are probably the only ones that point to self-activity or self-expression: Seb even sold his winter coat to purchase spray paint! When Sebastian gets arrested for shoplifting during a particularly fraught time for the family, Ricky collects him at the police station. Luckily, he meets a kindly copper who gives him a well-meaning talk about how fortunate he is to have a loving family and that he can get his life back together and be what he wants etc. The message of the film for me would imply that all this is well meaning nonsense. Sebastian’s graffiti collective is closer to some truth about class war politics than pieties about bootstraps and knuckling down.

Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You is a devastating critique of precarious work

It has always been a great strength of Loach that he manages to get such brilliant performances from inexperienced actors. The performances of the four main actors in Sorry We Missed You are superb, particularly in some emotionally fraught scenes. The cumulative effect of watching Ricky and Abbie struggle through the long working days (“What happened to the 8-hour day?” Mollie says at one point) and try to deal with the issues at home is really devastating. This is one of the most unflinching portrayals of working life ever seen on screen but also, one with an obviously deep sympathy for the characters. Ken Loach is one of the great socialist filmmakers.

So, it is probably surprising that the film ends on a note of such despair. I watched the film in the IFI with two friends and we were distraught at the end, in shock, could hardly look at one another. When you remember earlier Loach films also during times of defeat, like Riff Raff, there was some satisfaction when Robert Carlyle burned down the building site at the end in revenge against a brutal employer. Here, we don’t have that. I am thinking that Loach sees the total hopelessness of the current system and that it must go. But, destruction of this atomising system of colossal enrichment of the few is a collective project.

Review: Helena Sheehan: Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism

https://www.amazon.com/Navigating-Zeitgeist-Republicanism-International-Communism/dp/1583677275

Everyone goes through a crisis of belief at some point in their lives. We grow up with certain views of the world presented to us and when they don’t fit experience, have to revise or abandon them. This process can be incredibly painful and in the case of Helena Sheehan, it’s hard to imagine a more total collapse and rebuilding than her journey from nun to communist. Her autobiography, therefore is an important book, not just for documenting her times and the very interesting circles she moved in but in allowing the reader to explore in some depth a crucial question for us all: how do I know my current belief system is right?

That’s a big question for anyone, but it’s especially important if you are going to devote years of your life to a particular political strategy and try to persuade others of it.

Helena Sheehan’s political trajectory, charted with complete honesty in this book, was from conservative Catholic, to the US New Left of the late 1960s, to Official Sinn Féin on her arrival in Ireland in 1972 and to the Communist Party of Ireland in 1975, which she left early in 1980. Joining the Labour Party in 1981, Helena helped found the Labour Left group and was close to Michael D. Higgins.

There’s plenty in the autobiography for those wanting to cherry pick her insights into characters like Seamus Costello, Tomás Mac Giolla, Betty Sinclair and Michael O’Riordan, but my interest is in the deeper story.

In 1965, having committed herself to the Sisters of St Joseph in Pennsylvania, Helena found herself at odds with the lifestyle of the order. In particular, watching news broadcasts on the march from Selma to Montgomery in spring 1965, she saw nuns participating and wondered why she couldn’t do the same. She taught, ‘We shall overcome’ to the kids in her class. In other words, it was waves of history (as she puts it) that tore her away and while a few years later, nuns left the order in droves, Helena was one of the first to do so.

The intellectual crisis this brought about, compounded by losing her teaching job for being too ‘controversial’ and falling out with her family, was nearly fatal:

I was alone and desperate as it was possible to be. My world was in ruins. In time, I would rebuild on new foundations. But between the collapse of one worldview and the construction of another, there was only an abyss. I often wonder where I found the strength to endure that emptiness.

Eventually, Helena found a way forward via philosophical existentialism to the radical left in Philadelphia (she was studying at Temple University) and by 1970 was deeply involved with city politics. This is a fascinating part of the book, depicting a non-stop lifestyle and a feverish intensity of revolutionary discussions and actions that has rarely been seen since. Helena was in constant discussion with Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, anti-Vietnam protestors, members of the Weather Underground movement, Feminists, Gay rights activists, etc. Her background and intellectual rigour seems to have made her an extremely valuable activist, more able to connect the revolutionaries to wider audiences than many of her peers. And also to spot nonsensical posturing.

This is also the part of the book that in my view, most meets a challenge that she states in the preface, of wanting to connect the social and economic changes of her times with the experience of an individual. Her grasp of the totality of US society, allows her writing to be both wonderfully vivid at a personal level and at the same time to portray a massive systemic crisis. The same strengths are not evident in the sections on Ireland and the USSR, not because her beautiful writing style falters but because I don’t think, even now, reflecting on her life, she’s as clear about the nature of the social systems she’s writing about. These chapters lack her ability, for example, to juxtapose popular culture and sub-culture the way she does so brilliantly with the chapters on the USA.

And this brings me back to the question of belief systems. For a long time Helena was, to put it bluntly, a Stalinist, even after leaving the CPI. Since ‘Stalinist’ is an insulting term that evokes dictatorial practices and bullying, I need to state that Helena comes across as never anything but totally honest and someone who does not believe (as, alas, so many on the left seem to, even today) that there are situations where the ends justifies the means. As she quite rightly observes, ends and means are connected. Helena’s loyalty to the USSR was one of genuine intellectual conviction. Having studied Marxism of a certain type, seen its power, coherence and strength of insight, especially when compared to the anaemic philosophy she encountered while working on her PhD at TCD, Helena sincerely accepted that the USSR was socialist.

How does it happen that someone who has struggled to pick herself up from near death for having invested herself in one ideology (Catholicism) that came crashing down upon her, then adopted another that would do the same? The book stops in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin wall, with a signal that this would be the second great intellectual crisis of her life. The cheap answer, which seems to have been thrown at her several times, is that this is just her nature, to uncritically commit to a big-picture ideology. From nun to communist is not such an extraordinary journey from this perspective.

Helena’s own rebuttal to that is that she’s acquired her second, communist, worldview after years of effort to achieve intellectual and moral clarity, whereas she stumbled into the first, unformed and driven by forces of which she was largely unconscious.

And yet.

Let’s agree that, broadly speaking, to be a socialist is a fine thing. Really, this is an inspiring book because it is about a life spent largely in causes that have improved the position of working people, of those nations resisting empires, and especially the position of women. Nevertheless, as soon as you think you have the full picture, worse, if you defer to someone else in your party you think has the full picture, you’re doomed to one day finding yourself articulating a view that no socialist should hold.

In Helena’s book, I don’t think she ever defers to someone in authority, except perhaps the dead authorities of brilliant thinkers. But I do think her model of Marxism is (at least for 1975 to 1988), ultimately, a sterile one, by which I mean the categories that Marxists use to discuss social structures (mode of production, surplus value, etc.) have been imposed on history rather than derived from it.

How do I know my current belief system is right? Because I’ve studied; I’ve fought; I’ve struggled to change the world; I’ve tested it constantly against unfolding events; I’ve had to build it up from the ruins of previous belief systems. That’s all impressive but it’s not enough. My view is that you also have to be open to the possibility that this hard-fought for model is wrong. It’s difficult, because the path to becoming a post-modernist (something that Helena despises, with good reason), begins with surrendering the primacy of your belief system.

Yet when I see a human being who clearly has great honesty and integrity fail to mention the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in her discussions of Eastern Europe; fail to support the Prague Spring or the early days of Solidarity in Poland and instead, describe her sojourns in the USSR largely in halcyon terms, I have to shake my head in dismay. Now the book only ends in 1988, so Helena’s current views might be much closer to mine on these issues (i.e. on the side of those who rose up against the rulers of Russia and the eastern block). But for me the most fascinating aspect of this candid auto-biography is that it makes you question your own understanding. Readers will ask themselves: if someone with Helena’s strengths can end up a Stalinist, then where am I heading?

It’s not easy, being ambitious and determined enough to believe the whole world can become a place of equality and freedom, yet modest enough to accept your current approach to achieving that goal could be flawed. Yet on reading this entertaining autobiography, it seems to me that’s the fast-flowing contradiction that socialists have to constantly navigate.