Sunday, November 17, 2013

Indications of a violent society

My week in Johannesburg continued to be slightly weird.

In my everyday life, since I left school, I've only ever encountered violence through tv, film and computer games. Most of it is clearly fictionalised and there's often a very moral element behind it, with bad guys getting punished. But in South Africa, violence feels more real and closer to you. The houses are hidden behind thick walls and electric gates, topped off with electrified wire or spikes. Regularly you hear dogs barking in gardens or see security guards patrolling the streets. The people who live in Johannesburg are very serious about security. "The price of inequality" said one of my friends who was with me.

The reminders of violence continue when you talk to the people who live there, who often have pretty awful stories to tell, even if things haven't happened to them personally. One day we walked round a botanical gardens, noting the "no guns" signs everywhere. Such a sign would be infeasible in the UK, and while it was reassuring to know that someone had designated the park as a "no gun" zone, the fact the sign was necessary at all made me feel much less reassured. And there didn't seem to be a way of enforcing the policy in any case.

And on passing an open door in the guesthouse I was staying I heard this telling snippet of conversation from the unseen man inside: "The thing you have to remember is not to point the gun at anyone's face..."

We had been advised not to walk around by ourselves, particularly at night, and as we were staying out in a suburb we needed to get taxis into town or to tourist destinations. Except it didn't prove as easy as just phoning a taxi because more often than not they didn't come. Sunday ended up being a wasted day as we couldn't get a taxi to take us anywhere AND the electric gates broke again so we couldn't get out anyway.

Maybe it was our accents or international phone number that caused the taxis not to appear but we were advised to get someone else to phone a taxi for us, so in order to go anywhere you had to go through two levels of assistance. And for someone who's not used to that, it felt annoying. Because of that, on a few occasions we walked back to our hotel from the street of restaurants nearby. Most of it was well lit, but the tree-lined side street we were staying on was very quiet and as it was on the edge of a built-up area, was adjunct to undeveloped land. On a couple of occasions as we approached our guesthouse there were figures in the distance, hanging around, which caused us to increase our pace and breathing.

On Friday night, as we walked back, I was saying to my fella "Oh, I think the warnings about crime and danger are exaggerated here," and just then we heard a woman screaming and running towards us, followed by a couple of men who stopped and turned round when they saw us. The woman, who was understandably very upset, told us that the two men had just attacked her, tried to strangle her and grab her handbag. We helped her to get her to safety but if there was something to hammer the point home, that was it.

It could be a paradise. And I hope one day it is.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Gated in Johannesburg

I arrived in Johannesburg this morning for some work related stuff and some sight-seeing hopefully sandwiched in. Several people have asked me if I was scared of going, and the person who invited me and arrange my accommodation sent me a semi-reassuring email last week saying not to leave my luggage unattended at the airport and not to walk around at night by alone. But a couple of online searches on the internet at Heathrow left me feeling pretty terrified. But I have walked around Mexico City, Rio, Columbo, Mumbai and Preston city centre and coped. And actually, the airport felt very civilised - moreso than JFK at New York. The city has a smattering of tall buildings, which look like some were built in the 60s. We were driven to our guesthouse which had a very reassuring electric gate, and is in a "bohemian district". We were shown a 1-storey street of small shops and cafes which seems to make up a kind of cultural centre. After napping we decided to go out at get some breakfast.

But that's were events took a slightly surreal turn - we had been given a key fob with a button to press to make the electric gate open so we could go in and out as we pleased. But as much as we pressed it, the gate wouldn't open. The lady who seemed to be in charge of the guesthouse had vanished, and we appeared to be the only guests. Wandering around the compound felt a bit like being in the Twilight Zone, and when we tried phoning the numbers of the owners of the guesthouse we couldn't get through.

So eventually we got in touch with the guy who'd invited me and set up our booking and he lives about a 10 minute walk away so he said he'd come over. "I don't know what you expect him to do when he gets here," my fella snapped (by this point spousal relations were on shaky ground). "He might have a trick to get the gate open that we don't know about," I suggested, uselessly. So we sat watching tv with the sound turned down, waiting for him to arrive.

Finally, he appeared at the gate. And in an act which suggested experience which I have no knowledge of, he quickly pulled it open with one hand. Apparently these gates break down sometimes and have to be manually opened. By the time we got back from our coffee it had been fixed.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

[Carol] doesn't have many friends you know, I suppose it's just her personality.

The above bitchy quote from the Joan Crawford film Queen Bee has been buzzing around in my mind all day. Having done a degree in Psychology and then read up on a fair amount of Social Constructionist theory on top of that I don't believe in the validity of personality tests that much - they can be just as accurate as horoscopes and people have a tendency to just agree with any vaguely sounding positive statement they read about themselves. But I did the Myers-Briggs personality test last night and it turns out I'm an INFJ. More specifically that means I'm more introverted than extroverted, and tend to be introspective and rely on my imagination rather than engaging with the world around me. INFJs are somewhat sensitive souls and make decisions with their hearts. They like to commit to things and have order and tidiness around them. We are also quiet but have strong opinions and are good written communicators. We hate conflict and criticism and can behave somewhat irrationally when dealing with it.

Martin Luther King was one apparently. And I'd guess Carrie from Homeland would be one too. She spends a lot of time alone rather than socialising, she relies on hunches and emotions in her work (sometimes to her detriment, sometimes not), she's very driven to defeat all the terrorists and she can't handle conflict at all - almost always over-reacting. And she's not very relaxed.

The description of INFJs sounds like it applies to me too, but what surprises me is that this is the rarest personality type, held by only about 1% of people. Some personality types, like reliable best friend ISFJ, fact-checking ISTJ and team playing nice guy ESFJ are about 12 times as common. Maybe that helps to explain why I sometimes feel that my everyday interactions are a bit off-kilter at times - that I don't get other people and they don't get me. I kind of wish I'd done the test earlier in life - it might have helped to have known the result when I was in my 20s - a time when I tried harder to fit in and connect with other people and often felt disappointed by friends. All this time, it was just my personality unfortunately.

The website suggests other types that I'm likely to fare best in a relationship with, and fortunately my fellow, who also took the test, is one of those. He holds the second rarest type - making us a pair of very odd birds. It's true that there is someone for everyone, but in our cases we were lucky to find each other when we did - the odds weren't necessarily in our favour.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don't Put Me In The Shoe!

1988: Just after I finished my GCSE exams, I noticed an intriguing entry in the TV Times, on Thursday night after the 10 o'clock news. It was for a late 1970s Australian soap opera set in a women's prison (the Wentworth Detention Centre) called Prisoner Cell Block H, and I watched it, not expecting it to be very good. In some ways it wasn't - the acting was often camply melodramatic, the sets looked like sets and the storylines sometimes dragged and sometimes didn't make much sense with characters appearing to be written out for no reason. But it was riveting stuff all the same. In the first episode, a pretty young woman checks into the prison, accused of trying to kill the baby she has been employed to care for by burying it alive. She claims she's innocent, and sure enough we find out that she's telling the truth and the baby's still in danger from its insane mother, but the other prisoners don't believe her and the episode ends with the top dog of the prison, Bea Smith, burning the girl's hands in the steam press. During my student years, the soap was often pre-empted for sporting events (boo!), and when I moved across country to go to university I missed 2 years of it, as different regions were all showing it on different schedules. I remember during my first week at university, feeling disoriented and lonely, turning on the tv on Sunday night to see the welcoming faces of Bea, Lizzie, Doreen, Meg, Erica et al. And things didn't seem so bad. When Sheila Florence who played old lag Lizzie Birdsworth, died, my friends and I lit a little candle for her. I even started watching the series all over again on DVD a few years ago and kept a blog about it, although I have been remiss in keeping it up to date.

So it was with some interest that I realised that the show has been recently rebooted - and is now on Channel 5 - simply called Wentworth, it takes the same characters as before, but places them in the here and now. It's more of a retelling - or rather, a badly remembered retelling - as the storylines of characters deviate from the original. The actresses have a lot to live up to, and perhaps because it is filmed like a professionally done drama, it doesn't have the bumbling DIY feel of "Pris" as we called it. And in any case, I'm already hooked on another women's prison drama, Orange is the New Black. Orange follows middle-class New Yorker, Piper who goes to prison for trafficking drug money ten years previously when she had a drug-dealing girlfriend and a very different life. It is through Piper's eyes that we encounter the prison and its inmates, and each episode gives the backstory of a different character through a series of flashbacks which document some of the events that led to that prisoner being locked up. Even characters who are extremely unsympathetic are gradually fleshed out and shown to have a complex side - these are not women who have chosen a life of crime (as is the case for the reprehensible characters of Grand Theft Auto) but have often been forced into it via circumstance. Every character is believable and the acting, even from the minor characters, is compelling, particularly considering how young and relatively experienced some of the women playing these roles are.

My fella has an instinctual hatred for the drug-dealing girlfriend (who - spoiler alert - of course, happens to be in the same prison), calling her a "traitor" - which is the worst thing you can be in his eyes. But he also disapproves of those tv property buying shows like "A Place in the Sun: Home and Abroad" which follow people who are thinking about leaving the UK to start a new life. (He calls that show "Traitors".)

Although the cast of Orange are mostly not well known, it is fun to see Kate Mulgrew (Captain Kathryn Janeway) playing the prison top dog - a Russian chef with mad red hair (called Red) and a cold temper. Episode 2, which shows some of Red's backstory - is called "Tit punch", and has to be seen to be believed (episode 3 is called Lesbian Request Denied).

One of my favourite characters is Suzanne (aka Crazy Eyes). Here's why.

Even ol' Crazy eventually gets a sympathetic write-up after she is initially painted as mad and sexually predatory. And there is a heart-rending scene where she asks Piper, "Why do they call me crazy eyes?"

As the inheritor of Prisoner Cell Block H, I'd say Orange is the New Black wins the prize.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Magic Box

If there was one thing I could tell me 21 year old self, it's eat as much as you like now and savour every piece of chocolate because even your metabolism will slow down by the time you're 40. And if I was allowed two things, it would be - don't throw away so much stuff because you'll just miss it eventually and spend ages on ebay buying it all back again.
I think it started with a Mr Man Annual that I had as a child. You get older, move out, and all your childish books somehow vanish. But I saw this particular Annual in a junk shop in Bristol, years later. And opening it up fired off all these dormant synapases, each page full of memories, suddenly hurtling back through time to 1982. I didn't buy it, because, well, it felt a bit silly. But I immediately regretted it, and when I saw the same annual a few years later on a market stall, I stopped in my tracks and bought it. It's now on my book shelf, along with the Fighting Fantasy books that I used to have as a child, and an enormous book from the 1940s called A Day in Fairyland which I used to look at when I visited my grandmother which cost £80. It's not just books. Up until the age of about 16, we only had a handful of records in our home, and I must have listened to each one hundreds of times. I threw away all my LPs about 10 years ago when CDS and then MP3s started changing the way that I listened to music. But I've since regretted getting rid of so many of them, and have hunted most of them down - the Disney Album that was advertised constantly in the run up to Christmas 1977, the Readers Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set (10 fabulous discs, one for each year), Ed Stewart's fairytales - with a classical music soundtrack that made me fall in love with Swan Lake years and the Hall of the Goblin King before I knew what they were, and even a really corny Western Film Music album.

The magical Reader's Digest Sensational 70s Boxed Set was what set off my love of retro, way back in 1989 when my friend Kathryn discovered that magic box in her older sister's cupboard. We were both hideously uncool and "swotty" although I don't think anyone at our school realised the intellectual disdain we held them all in. Like many social outcasts we rejected a lot of the stuff we were supposed to like, and inside fell back into the past - reclaiming a garish decade that nobody thought much of. I think we started off by making fun of The Carpenters and all the disco but after a few plays, we had fallen in love. We held a bizarre 1970s party for our bemused friends, which culminated in us walking around Peterlee town centre dressed in 1970s get-up, very late one Friday night, posing for photos next to supermarket trolleys and hoping a drunk would see us and think they had somehow gone back in time.

Kathryn loved The Mission and U2 and Bon Jovi and used to make compilation tapes out of Radio 1's Chart Show on Sunday night, followed up by the more exotic fare that Annie Nightingale offered just afterwards. But she's maintained her soft spot for the 70s, and last night presided over a 1970s quiz, made up of 20 intros from the Sensational 70s boxed set. I'm afraid my memory, like my metabolism, isn't what it used to be - and I couldn't recall about 7 of the songs. MY strategy was to put "Dire Straits" for every question I didn't know, although my fella pointed out that they were more of an 80s group, so that didn't help. Towards the end, in desperation I simply wrote "I have the Alzheimer's Gene", and "see above" for questions 16 and 17, hoping that Kathryn's husband, who was going to be marking my answers, would take pity on me. Unfortunately I came last, even mis-spelling Bacarra. I think I'll be needing to spend more time with the Magic Box so I don't disgrace myself next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

All my Niggaz

Yesterday saw the release of Grand Theft Auto 5 - the much anticipated and several-times postponed ultra-violent computer game where you take the role of three criminals (and a dog) in a huge perfectly rendered rendition of Los Angeles. The previous game, set in New York, took up quite a lot of my life a few years ago, and I didn't even finish it. I was in two minds about whether to buy GTA5 as apart from having three characters and a different city, it looked like more of the same - driving around and shooting people or wandering aimlessly through a beautiful city, where the sense of awe at the gigantic game-space always gives way to a horrible sense of loneliness (I am wandering alone and have no-one to talk to) and futility (I'm wasting time playing a game and not even playing it with any sense of purpose).

But my biggest problem about GTA is the unrelenting, Tarantino-like violence, which characterises about 90% of computer games these days. It's not that I expect it will turn players into violent nutters (you could equally argue it's providing a safe outlet for nutters), but I don't want to play that role. Even in a "sophisticated" way. I'm not interested in the little character nuances and dilemmas faced by people who have chosen violent crime as a way of life. I find them boring and it's why I could never get into the Sopranos.

But I got swept along with the glowing reviews last week, so last night went to buy a copy. A news article noted that someone had been stabbed on the way home from buying the game. For the first time ever, there was a queue in my local Game (all of us buying the same thing). As I entered the shop and asked the assistant at the door whether there were any copies left, a posh man in a suit barged in and said "Can I just interrupt you, are there any copies of Grand Theft Auto 5 available?" Because I'm a bit slow socially sometimes I just let him take over, but my fella has a maternal DNA strand from the "battle-axe" tribe and is made of much more assertive stuff than me, so he let the guy have a few snappy comments (which had no effect). For a second or two, I wished I was a character in Grand Theft Auto, equipped with one of the more exotic weapons in the game's endless arsenal.

I got the game home and played it for most of last night. It feels like all the other games in the series, although with slightly better graphics. "Can you turn the dialogue off?" my fella asked after one of the characters called another a "homo". After a couple of hours, I worked out some of the dialogue rules of GTA5: If a black character is speaking or being spoken to, the word nigga must be used (preferably twice in the same sentence). Every time someone speaks, the f word must be used. Every time someone speaks, there must be reference to private parts or a sexual act involving private parts. All women are bitches or hos. Claiming that someone is homosexual is still a valid way of insulting men. And everyone must always sound ironic and world-weary.

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to find the language funny or realistic not. It's so over the top that it becomes a parody of itself. And GTA prides itself on being very postmodern and clever. So characters are critical of capitalism: "just a legal way of screwing people over" and the tv shows you can watch in the game show programs like "Republican Space Rangers: Intergalactic war on terror" which features one of the homophobic troopers having gay fantasies. The radio stations make digs at censorship and the way that sites like Facebook invade privacy. But at the same time, there are no playable female characters. And ultimately to get on you have to kill people.

There's so much talent in Grand Theft Auto. It might be the best computer game ever made. It's clever and funny and beautiful. But at its core - it's rotten.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The last of summer

Getting from JFK airport to Manhattan is like trying to swim upstream against a river made of treacle. In theory it should only take about 15 minutes. But due to the amount of traffic, random lane and bridge closures, accidents etc. it's best to plan for an hour and a half. Even in Manhattan, traffic jams can spring up out of nowhere and on more than one occasion I've just gotten out of a cab with my suitcases and walked the last few blocks. Roads and pavements are not in the best state, making the British pothole winter of 2011 seem like a fuss over nothing. In Manhattan, actual sinkholes appear in roads, threatening to suck innocent pedestrians and cars into a dark hell below. One such hole appeared in the middle of the road by our apartment in Greenwich village on Tuesday, ironically, after the road had been closed off altogether on Monday. Car-drivers didn't notice it and there were horrible crunching sounds as they tried to drive over it. On Wednesday a cone had been placed inside it and by Thursday workmen were back to resolve the problem. But they mustn't have done a very good job because by Friday it was back again.

It's the first time I've been to New York in the summer in years - I've normally gone in winter, having convinced myself that August would be unbearable. It was hot but not too bad, and much preferable to January. The preference for little dogs as pets in Greenwich Village and lack of places to let them go to the toilet means that some of the sidewalks smell strongly of dog wee in summer though. If there is one thing that New York excels at, it is cinema. There is nowhere like it in the world for quantity and quality. The Film Forum were having a season of fantasy/horror/sci-fi so we spent far too long watching double bills of Alien/Aliens, Joan Crawford/Bette Davis and Harryhausen adventure. The only downside was sitting through the adverts each time - we must have seen this advert 10 times.

Bardot's voice always sounds off-key to me, and something must have been wrong with the sound quality of the print of the advert because people were wincing in pain all the way through. Audience members in America are oddly interactive - befitting the extroverted nature of the culture (an American person is like an equivalent British person after a large gin). They applaud a lot - and sometimes at weird non sequiter bits. They also talk to strangers who are sitting near them - and we saw one such exchange between two lone film-goers quickly descend into hostility over some trivia-based disagreement that only true nerds can care about. The best example of audience participation was during a screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at the Anthology Film Archives. The audience was 90% gay male (a lone woman hurriedly left about the first 10 minutes), the film started late and the reel broke twice, plunging the theatre room into darkness. But nobody seemed to mind too much, and there was a lot of hand waving and camp chair-dancing during the musical numbers. Some devoted fans on the front row also shrieked out some of the silliest lines.

Other highlights of the trip: eating at an Ethipoian restaurant, walking the entirety of the high-line (the raised rail-track that's been converted into a garden walk over Manhatthan), meeting my friend Mark and hearing about his house-share in Fire Island (complete with fights over space in the fridge for needles) and playing the piano every day at the Greenwich House Music School, which was a couple of doors from where we were staying. Now back in the UK, I've put the heating on, and a jersey. Summer definitely seems over.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Russia?

With its winter Olympics approaching in February 2014, all eyes are on Russia’s horrible homophobia. Its dreary dead-eyed leader, Vladimir Putin likes to assert his masculinity by showing off his chest to anyone who’ll look, sometimes while riding a horse, holding a gun, fishing or swimming. Type “Putin bare chest” into Google images and it looks like stills from a failed audition for the film Brokeback Mountain. Enough said.

After legalising homosexual acts in 1993, Russia has recently discovered it hates LGBT people, passing one of those mean-minded “don’t say gay” laws and enabling violence and humiliation of gay people, often by shaven-headed thugs. Anyone who attends the Winter Olympics and unfurls a rainbow flag, participates in a gay kiss or talks about being gay will be subject to arrest and probably worse.

So while homophobia is far from “solved” in the West, there has been a media and social media outcry about Russia. Even my mother has released an “open letter” on her Facebook page I think. Everyone is having a lot of ideas, but there is not much agreement on the best way to proceed. Gay skater Johnny Weir advocates going to Sochi because that’s what he’s trained to do. Stephen Fry says boycott the games. Barack Obama and David Cameron tut tut at Russia but won’t have a boycott. John Amaechi says Olympians should use the podium as a soap box. Dan Savage has called for a boycott of Stoli vodka.

Personally, I don’t know which is the best answer to “solve Russia”. I’m not that confident, and I suspect none of it will make an immediate difference. So I’d say, do everything, but don’t bitch about people who are well-meaning and want to do something different to you. Perhaps the best strategy is a multi-pronged attack. So do something rather than nothing.

Here are some things that history tells us:

Countries which are insecure and/or overly ambitious (perhaps because they were once superpowers or would like to be superpowers but aren’t at the moment) tend to suffer an identity crisis and so their frightened governments try to unite their people around hatred of a minority group within their own boundaries. This often involves moral panics around easy targets.

All leaders eventually fall. Either in a gold-encrusted bed, surrounded by devoted underlings or hunted down, found hiding in a drainage pipe and raped with a bayonet.

Homophobia is usually a case of two steps forward one step back. Britain decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, then in the 1980s it passed Clause 28 which lasted oh, 12 years or so. Russia is having its backlash and it isn’t going away any time soon. But one day it will. And when Putin is long gone, there will be gay monuments and gay museums in Russia, and its government will apologise.

Finally, gay rights activists have a kind of special superpower that means they don’t shut up and they never let it lie. This makes them very annoying to their opponents. But it also means they always win. It’ll get worse before it gets better in Russia. But it will get better.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Big Racists

Does anyone still watch reality tv? It seems so 2000s in this so-called Golden Age of high-quality scripted drama like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Homeland and Top of the Lake. Like lichen, there is still an awful lot of it about though, even if the concept of "reality" actually means "scripted" and producers, cast members and audience are all complicitly in on it. My favourite parody of reality tv are 2 episodes of the hyperactive sitcom 30 Rock which features a show within a show called "Queen of Jordan", involving bringing a load of peripheral characters to the forefront, while those who have the main parts take a slight back seat. The star of Queen of Jordan is Angie, a forceful woman who is an IBS "survivor" and thinks that elegance and attitude are the same thing. She even has her own catchphrase "It's my way, til pay day." She is surrounded by a cast of reality stereotypes - a sassy gay man, a cougar and a meth addict. The show has a lot of fun with the conventions of reality tv, featuring montages where cast members throw glasses of wine over each other (one character even brings out his own brand of "throwing wine"), and concocting ludicrous feuds between characters (Angie's 3 year old daughter is involved in one such feud, looking furious when someone else turns up to a high profile event wearing the same dress as her).

Parody aside, me and my fella watched an episode of a new MTV reality show, Catfish earlier this week. The premise involves people meeting up with people they have fallen in love with online - and end up not being what they seem. It all seems greatly story-boarded and the denounment I saw, along with an admittedly surprisingly twist which made both of us go "Oooh!" appeared rather like role-playing for it to be believable. As it was MTV, for every song that was played as background music, information appeared onscreen about the song's name and artist, which was much more distracting than you'd think. I recall the early 90s when MTV actually played music videos and I'd have it on almost constantly at home, as a kind of background radio station.

I only watch two reality shows now with any regularity, the American version of Big Brother and Survivor (which are pretty much the same programme although the former takes place in a studio and the latter happens on an island). I gave up on the British version of Big Brother halfway through season 8 - despite kind of hating it since season 4. I never liked the UK's public voting format, instead preferring the cut-throat and strategy of the American version, which is anything but a popularity contest where 15 year old girls with mobile phones award the prize to the blandest person. The American version has produced some of the most coldly clever (Will, season 2), passively scheming (Jun, season 4), abrasively bullying (Dick, season 8) and brayingly annoying (Rachel, season 13) winners over the years. Only about 5 winners have been "likeable" and would have won in the British version. It airs every summer when nothing much else is on, for about 30 episodes so it isn't too much of a stretch to keep up to date. Contestants play silly parlour games (on slightly bigger budgets) and the winner selects two others to go up for a house vote where one will be evicted. These two have a chance to get safety before the final vote though, if they win another silly game. Power changes from week to week and at times the struggles, bargains, threats and meltdowns can appear epic in nature, so much so that I sometimes forget that there is actually a real world outside and I even exist, except as a viewer.

So for the increasingly small Big Brother audience, I understand how feelings run very strong, and rather surprisingly, Big Brother has had more attention than usual this year in the media, due to a combination of especially unpleasant contestants who have made racist, homophobic and sexist remarks to one another. Some of it has been at the level of "humorous" name-calling (a gay contestant was called kermit the fag when he wore green, remarks about rice have been made about the Korean contestant), which is bad enough, even when the person doing it claims to like you. But other forms of racism have been used by contestants who clearly do not like each other and are intentionally aimed to denigrate. In particular, a black contestant called Candace has been subjected to some awful treatment.

Unfortunately, the show has done nothing to quash the "racist southerner" stereotype, with some of the worst stuff coming from a sweet-faced blonde princess called Ayran. She and another contestant, GinaMarie (a belligerent, ignorant, insecure New Yorker) have already lost their jobs in "the real world" while a third contestant is under investigation. The outcry over the remarks has been so strong that CBS have taken to showing a warning/disclaimer message at the start of each episode, saying they don't condone it.

BB15 Bigotry Supercut by f100004662309159

Initially, these remarks did not make it to the actual show - the contestants are filmed constantly and can be watched via live feeds, although only a few minutes of footage each week make it to the three hour-long shows. But after increasingly stunned media focus, the program showed some of Aryan's bigotry, making her the scape-goat and symbol of the problem, rather than more honestly indicating how many contestants were implicated in it. Aryan has thus been constructed as the "villain" - a familiar reality trope which over-simplifies the issue.

The host, Julie Chen (known lovingly as Chenbot due to her somewhat mechanical way of presenting) has publically commented on the racism although it is unlikely that anyone on the show will be confronted about it by producers. Their position looks more strategic when you consider that a likeable contestant from a previous season, Jeff Schroeder, who called someone a fag during an argument and has made other comments that could be viewed as homophobic (e.g. not wanting gay people to teach children), has been repeatedly brought back to the show in a kind of semi-presenter capacity, as well as appearing as a veteran contestant in a later edition and in another CBS reality show, The Amazing Race. So much for not condoning.

And this has led some commenters to give up on the show altogether. Both Jun who won season 4, and all-knowing reality tv blogger Andy Denhart have written blogs entries saying they won't be watching any more. There is the feeling that CBS are having their cake and eating it - by not disciplining or evicting racist contestants but by distancing themselves from the comments, they get to maintain the status quo and keep the ratings up. The British version of Big Brother famously had its "racist crisis" back in 2007, when Jade Goody and others picked on an Indian contestant in the celebrity version. Those involved were publically pilloried when the series ended, and the following year a white contestant was instantly kicked out for saying the "n" word. Hurrah everyone, Britain's racism problem was solved (except it wasn't).

America has a more contentious history and relationship with racism than Britain, although Britain is by no means a paradigm of racial harmony.

America also feels more libertarian than the UK, which half-heartedly clings to reverence for authority figures (the government, the queen, the BBC) telling us to play nice. America, on the other hand, often feels like it is run purely by and for big business. Ultimately, whatever country you're in though, Big Brother is about ratings and the advertising money that high ratings attracts.

For me, what's most interesting is how the anger about the racism has appeared now, rather than say, in season 4 (in 2003), which Jun acknowledges also had a lot of racist contributions from its contestants, herself included. It suggests that in the ten years that have passed, attitudes have shifted. I would be surprised if next year, CBS changes its "condone but does not condone" policy. If they have any sense, they'll make it clear from the outset that it won't be tolerated and offenders will be removed. If not, well god help America.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Thoughts on watching the news, night after night after night

"I simply can't vote Labour because of Iraq!" I heard at a middle-class liberal dinner-party in 2009.
"Then the Conservatives will get in," I said. But nobody there seemed to care much. Punishing the Labour Party seemed so much more important than getting a Tory party who would go on to do god knows what to the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. Ideals came before reality.

I have no ideals at all. I'm ruthlessly practical, so I voted Labour in spite of Iraq and a hundred other things, because it was the kindest most realistic choice on offer.

And since then I've often wondered whether anyone at that nice dinner party regretted voting Liberal or Green. Because we got a conservative MP in our marginal constituency, and the pattern was repeated across the country to the extent that David Cameron became Prime Minister. The only thing I like that he's done is gay marriage.

So quickly we have become a society that has turned on our underclass. The government counts up their bedrooms and if they have too many, they'll be priced out - families ending up in one-room bed and breakfasts because there is often nowhere else to house them.

The tabloids are full of stories about benefits cheats and benefits culture. The welfare state is thought to be too expensive. Despite the fact that the majority of "welfare" goes on pensions, it's the "lazy scroungers" who are vilified again and again. Despite the fact that the recession was caused by the greed of the rich, despite the fact that the gap between rich and poor has increased over the last decade. Despite the fact that large corporations use every loophole they can to avoid paying tax.

When even respectable aunty BBC has a television programme called "Saints and Scroungers", devoted to rooting out benefits cheats, you realise how deep-rooted this view has become.

The last time it happened like this it was the 1980s and I was in one of those "scrounging families" for a while - despite long hours working over-time my Dad's bus-driver wage didn't keep up with inflation so fell every year in real terms, to the point where for a few weeks we had to get government assistance. Luckily, our "problem" was solved by my mother going out to work full-time as well. This time, I'm pretty much insulated from every aspect of the recession, and my complaints are about the suffering of others, or the fact that my favourite furniture shop had to close down. But I couldn't have imagined anything worse than Thatcher.

When the government are sponsoring a van to go round telling illegal immigrants to go home, you realise how the country is collectively getting more right-wing.

But in some ways, I hope that this will split the vote. I hope there is an equivalent dinner party going on, in some southern constituency, with a group of pensioners sitting around arguing about illegal immigrants. "Dave's not doing enough!" one is saying. "I'm leaving the Tories and voting UKIP!"
"But then Labour will get in," says my equivalent.

I hope so. But I wonder whether the right-wing are as idealistic as the sort of people I hang out with. And I suspect not.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Sick tree

I have two trees at the bottom of my garden. One is a gnarled, ancient-looking apple tree that normally produces a lot of apples in the summer, apart from last year where the Narnian conditions did not do it any favours. It currently houses several nests of bees and apart from the occasional woolly aphid problem seems OK.

The other is a Staghorn Sumac, native to North America. There is only one other in my town that I'm aware of. It produces leaves that go bright red in Autumn, along with weird looking husks. It's not the most beautiful of trees for most of the year, but the Autumn makes up for it. Last year it didn't produce any leaves until August, and I was a bit worried that a creeping plant was starting to leech into it. I got rid of the creeper but this year was the same. The other Staghorn that I notice on the way to work every day had a full set of leaves a couple of months ago. Mine has been struggling to get any, even by late July. And worse still, I was starting to get the impression it was gradually falling over.

I phoned a tree surgeon on Wednesday who said he could come round Thursday evening. But by Thursday afternoon I looked out of my window to this.

The tree surgeon just got his chainsaw and sawed it into bits. It was kind of awful to watch. Then he took it away. I kept a bit of the stump and counted the rings. There were 16.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Detached Notes

I took my Grade 5 piano exam today. Grade 5 is something of a personal milestone because that's what my best friend Kathryn got up to, and she's a brilliant player. A year ago we looked at some of the exam pieces in a music shop together and we both felt as if the pieces had got easier since the 1980s when she got to Grade 5 (and I got to Grade 2). Another friend, who's a music teacher has sort of confirmed this but says the criteria to pass has gotten more difficult. Anyway, Grade 5 is the last exam you can take without having done any of the others. To even sit Grade 6, you have to have passed Grade 5, and apparently it gets more difficult after that. Even the examiner said to me: "Grade 5 is the end of the beginning" while I was packing up.

For some reason my hands were extremely cold, but I think I did OK, only making a couple of small slips on my pieces. I don't hate them now as much as the Grade 3 and 4 pieces, but they've been more challenging and thus fun to play. I did most of my scales OK, apart from the arpeggios which are just horrible. And I think I got the sight reading which was relatively easy with only 1 B flat. Then I had the dreaded aural tests which I always flounder at. This time I'd downloaded an Iphone app to help me with them. Somehow the app has managed to convey the severe personality of an unimpressed Madam Sousatzka type tutor. She has an indeterminate "foreign" accent and always sounds both bored and unimpressed, and even on the rare occasions when you get all the answers right she utters a semi-sarcastic "wow" as if to imply "I wasn't expecting that, you must have been guessing". I don't have a real piano tutor, so she is all I have. I suspect that the next time they update the app, the makers will incorporate an electric shock which she will administer with glee when you get an answer wrong (ie it will be the default).

All of the aural tests are difficult to me, and I know I will lose marks on the singing because I can't do it. But I thought I might stand a chance with one part of the test where the examiner plays a piece of music and you have to say whether it's from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic or 20th Century. You'd think this would be easy as it covers about 400 years and I'm fine at spotting the difference between 1960s, 1970s and 1980s music for example which is a much shorter time-span, but trends were slower in those days and I kept getting it wrong, to the obvious delight of my spiteful Piano Tutor App who took considerable pleasure in pointing this out. I finally figured out that Baroque music sounds like the sort of thing you'd see people in big white wigs dancing to in front of a King. I wrote down and memorised saying "detached notes, few dynamic changes, limited keyboard range, sounds like dancing" because you have to explain the reasoning behind your answer.

Romantic sounds like the pianist is all emotional - there's lots of drama ("rubato, virtuosic, use of dampening pedal, wide range"), while 20th century is either a bluesy piece or totally bonkers ("unclear tonality, irregular structure, strong rhythms"). Unfortunately, Classical gets me confused because it's kind of in transition from Baroque to Romantic - and apart from using lots of scales and arpeggios, I can never get it. (Unless, as I suspect, the evil app has been lying to me).

Not only do you have to identify the period, but you sometimes have to describe the "character" of the piece. So I devised a couple of vague all-encompassing things, in case I couldn't think of anything. I practiced looking very thoughtful, cupping my chin and saying "It's very interesting and also very musical." These weren't options that the app gave, funnily enough. Fortunately, I didn't get asked about character, so I never got to say that.

I've tentatively bought the Grade 6 music, just to see. It's impossibly difficult. My detached virtual piano tutor is going to love it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mrs Henderson is dead

I took a pleasantly nostalgic trip to the town I grew up in, Peterlee on Friday. Peterlee is a small new town in east Durham - an overlooked part of the country, although when it was first built, my parents felt they had won the lottery with their brand new council house which had upstairs and downstairs toilets and looked on to abundant areas of green space. I left home 23 years ago and since my parents moved to Durham City, haven't really had any reason to go back. But I was in the area and had an afternoon to spare.

This is the site of one of my earliest memories. I can just about recall being in a pram or pushchair and being wheeled down here by my grandparents (must have been around 1973-4). My grandmother was berating my grandfather for going too fast or not holding onto the pram properly. I guess my lifelong acquaintance with anxiety and caution began here.

This was a short cut through town which led to the swimming baths. Although it was a couple of miles from my home and I must have been only 7 or 8, my parents let me accompany other kids to the baths during the school holidays. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and I always feel grateful I got a proper childhood that allowed me to run around outside unsupervised.

And here's what's just over that brow - Peterlee Leisure Centre where I had swimming lessons for 2 years from Mrs Henderson. I actually went in for a swim there and the incredibly friendly manager, who could tell from my accent that I wasn't local, asked me lots of questions. I pointed out where the Space Invader machine used to be in the late 1970s, and he told me that Mrs Henderson died a few months ago. The whole place was exactly as I had remembered, even down to the internal brickwork that was such a common feature of municipal buildings of the late 60s/early 70s. Even some of the actual fonts were intact. It was like time travel.

The Apollo Pavilion, designed by Victor Pasmore. I used to play on this "brutalist" structure as a child, and sometimes catch tadpoles in the pond and watch them grow into frogs. The Pavilion fell into disrepair and got covered in graffiti in the 80s and 90s, acting as a social weather-vane for the whole town as unemployment and social inequality turned the 60s New Town dream into what sometimes felt like a dystopian nightmare. Pasmore was characteristically blazé about it in only that way that people who don't have to live there can be. I'm glad to see it's been cleaned up anyway.

A view of Old Shotton, a tiny village attached onto the southwest part of town. I used to pass it on my way home from school, and was always envious of the neatly kept lawns and proper "old" houses. There was also a "minimart" where I used to buy abridged copies of classic novels for 50p a go. It's not there any more, which makes me sad.

After my piano-playing grandfather was knocked down by a car and killed instantly in 1980 when on the way to perform at one of the local clubs, my grandmother moved out of her prefab home in Shotton and was rehoused on the first floor of these flats. I used to stay over on weekends to keep her company. She was a lot more lenient than my parents - I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted and got to watch Diana Dors in the Hammer House of Horror series "Children of the Full Moon", which gave me nightmares.

An area of woodland adjoining the A19 which acted as a barrier to the local housing estate that I grew up on. I used to climb these two trees in particular, aged between 8 and 12. And weirdly, coming back to see that they were still there, a bit thicker in places, some branches missing, was like meeting old friends.

My old street. My house was the brown one to the left of the one with the flat roof. In the 70s all the houses were council-owned. Then people were allowed to buy them. Some people did. Some didn't. Then in the 1980s, it was discovered that the houses were clad in dangerous asbestos so the council renovated those it still owned and put proper pitched roofs to replace the inefficient and leaky flat ones. For people who'd bought the homes in good faith - well they were screwed. Welcome to Thatcher's Britain. Some of them took out extra mortgages (like my parents) and did the renovations themselves - using different builders and materials from the council. Some people could only afford to do half measures - hence the one which has the original flat roof. As a result, the whole estate is a mismatched mess of different house styles. And there isn't really anything I can say to put a nice spin on it. Every flat roof is a reminder to me - NEVER VOTE CONSERVATIVE.

My old junior school - now surrounded by thick foliage and large metal fence with spikes on top. There was a tiny wooden fence when I used to go there, which we'd sit on and play "piranhas" (a game we made up). (This was the only photo that I felt uncomfortable taking, and I was relieved it was well out of school hours by now).

The Catholic Club - somehow still standing, and another remnant of an early memory - I attended a Christmas party there aged 2 and was given a packet of coloured chalk as a present. My parents used to slightly disapproving of the people who "drank" in there, and I always associated Catholicism with alcoholism as a result.

An iconic image of Peterlee town centre - a split level shopping paradise - aged 3, in December I somehow got detached from my grandmother who was looking after me - just by that PoundWorld sign (it used to be a Fine Fayre), and a kind old man took my hand and led me to a police station where I sat on an old copper's knee in a very well lit room with all the other policemen, until my grandmother showed up, her face completely white and horrified. We never told my mother, who was in hospital at the time, giving birth to my sister.

Further Reading - this BBC article details the possible effects of spending cuts on Peterlee, used as an exemplar of one of the poorest towns in the UK.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


My cat was put to sleep yesterday. My fella and I were with him to the end. He was 17, had been on tablets for four years and they'd stopped working. During the last few days he'd stopped eating and was constantly gasping for breath. He couldn't lie down properly and had started hiding away from us. We'd been expecting it for a long time, but nothing can really prepare you when you watch something that you love die in front of you, even if it's a release from pain. After it had happened, he lay stretched out, as if he was sleeping happily in the sun. I realised he hadn't been in that position for a long time.

He was never "just a cat" to us. From the moment he chose us, running up my fella's leg when he was a few days old and in a litter, he has been a constant source of discussion, delight, exasperation, concern and humour. He had a lovely personality, incredibly sociable and friendly, never scratched anyone or hissed, loved to be around people, always made himself the centre of attention when we had visitors, always kept his fur perfectly clean, and was always pleased to see us. He loved to be stroked and brushed, and sometimes felt more like a dog than a cat. Sometimes more like a little person. He certainly had more personality than most people and as I get older and more cranky and less tolerable I sometimes feel that I am more suited to being around "dumb" animals.

He's been such a constant part of my life for so long, that I can't imagine life without him. A light in my life has gone out for good, and with that a great source of joy and love, that I don't think can ever be replaced.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Yesterday I watched on my television a group of a few hundred people, consisting mostly of old men from privileged backgrounds, stand up in a large hall and make proclamations about whether or not I should be allowed to get married. Key among them was Sir Gerald Howarth, a Conservative MP who represents Aldershot. Howarth spat out many of the old tropes that have been used to deny equality to gay people since the Victorian period. He referred to the "aggressive homosexual community". MP Edward Leigh said ‘If you dare disagree with the orthodoxy that gay marriage is the best thing since sliced bread, you are breaking a new taboo... The outlandish views of the loony left of the 1980s have now become embedded in high places’. Another MP, Tim Loughton, tried to introduce a bill to allow heterosexual people to have civil partnerships. This was championed as a form of equality, although the real reason was to wreck the gay marriage bill. Mary Douglas complained that there was "no mandate" for the reform, perhaps forgetting that many Tories want a vote on UK's position in the EU, despite the fact that there was "no mandate" for that either. David Burrowes, an evangelical Christian who has been involved with a "gay cure" charity in the past, said that "This is not a marriage bill, it's an unfair dismissal bill" (for registrars and others with conscientious and religious objections)."

I'd produced one of those "bingo cards" so people could tick off the predictable phrases as they were spoken during the debate.

Outside Parliament, what can only be described as a Coven of Hatred held up signs claiming that marriage was between a man and a woman while chanting and wailing in a disturbing chorus.

Sometimes I forget just how much people who have never met me hate me.

I view these Haterz as stupid in many ways - stupid because their arguments can be easily deconstructed - "we're casting aside tradition and it's terrible" - "but who said tradition's always good - what about the tradition of slavery?". But stupid because deep down, they must know that they are going to lose - and that history will not remember them kindly. Perhaps they really do have deeply held religious convictions - but in that case, they're too stupid to understand that religion is pretty much all in the interpretation and you can fix it any way you like. Stupid too because they're arguing about something which is unlikely to have any real impact in their own lives. Nobody's taking their own marriage away. (Clearly) they don't have gay friends. It won't make much difference to them.

A documentary about the moral panic over video nasties in the 1980s I saw recently ended with the message that the right-wing don't care when they lose debates due to times changing. They just cheerfully forget it all and move on to the next thing they can attack. Their only interest is in retaining power and in shaping the national dialogue for the present. It is in their own interests for their defeats to be forgotten, so they can use similar techniques of outrage for the next time. So Tory defence secretary Philip Hammond, on Question Time last week argued that there was no huge demand for gay marriage, and that civil partnerships had dealt with "the very real disadvantage" that gay couples faced, making him sound almost reasonable. Yet he was somewhat stumped when Labour MP Chris Bryant reminded him of his voting record on gay rights saying "I'd accept your argument more if you'd ever voted for an equal age of consent, for gays to be allowed to adopt, for gays in the military to be able to peruse their career or for that matter if you had voted for civil partnerships. "There have been 23 votes in the time you've been in parliament on these issues, on 12 of them you've not even bothered to turn up and on 11 you've voted against." People like Hammond want us to forget how much of a bigot he was in the past, so he can pretend he isn't one now.

And amid all this, on Saturday night, one of my friends, co-incidentally also called Chris(topher) Bryant was walking home after celebrating his birthday with his partner. Chris is the editor of an online gay magazine Polari which I've written articles for a few times. Polari magazine had just done a series of articles to mark IDAHOBIT the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphohia and Transphobia on May 17th, where people had written in with their stories of encountering homophobia.

Shockingly, the couple were attacked by six men who beat and robbed them, yelling "stay down faggot". It's on the front page of today's Independent.

In a world where the most powerful people in the country can stand up, shamelessly in Parliament and use pitifully poor reasons to deny gay people a basic right to equality, it is hardly surprising that just a few miles away, unexpected, unprovoked physical violence can be committed against gay people. It is hard to see how the two are not linked. Yet it is these bigots who complain about gay people being aggressive and having their own rights (the right to hate others) being taken away. I wonder if Hammond, Haworth and Loughton have ever been physically beaten or screamed at just for being heterosexual. I wonder if they have had the word "straight" used as an insult on them, or if they have heard it used routinely around them, as I heard one of the students in my department use the word "gay" as an insult, outside my office yesterday. For them to talk about the "aggressive homosexual community" would be funny - if it wasn't for pictures like the one on the front of the Independent.

Philip Hammond, Gerald Howarth, Edward Leigh, Mary Douglas, Tim Loughton. They're middle-aged. I'd be surprised if any of them are around in 35-50 years time. But I hope their names won't be forgotten. If we are to improve as a species, we must not forget our worst exemplars of humanity - what we are capable of, so we can avoid making those mistakes again.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ten Thoughts on Homes Under The Hammer in reverse order of importance

Homes Under the Hammer is my guilty pleasure. Its premise is dangerously simple. We follow the winners of house auctions as they transform dumps into palaces, and then feel slightly sick at home much profit they've made. If it was a drug it would be heroin - a big warm blanket of wellbeing, taking you out of yourself and letting the world outside pass by un-noticed. (I'm relying on Russell Brand's description here as that's a particular experience I'm not especially interested in having). As it's a Daytime TV show, I only get to watch Homes Under the Hammer when I'm either ill or on holiday with nothing much planned. Watching it therefore feels like the height of indulgence. It is not enlightening, barely educational and quite possibly very bad for you.

1. The music. I don't mean the title music but the auditory puns that appear to be obligatory every twenty seconds. If one of the auction winners happens to be a builder called Jack, you know they'll play "This is the House that Jack Built". If a house is near an underground station, they'll play "Sound of the Underground". If a room has large windows they'll play "Sunny". I love it when cool songs like Amy Winehouse's "You Know That I'm No Good" are forever ruined by association. I often wonder who has the job of deciding which music to play. And what their life must be like. Do they wake up screaming?

2. The strange way that the male presenter, Martin Roberts, holds his hands together and in front of him. It makes me wonder if he's in pain, or just very self conscious and can't decide what to do with them.

3. The permanently upbeat nature of BOTH presenters, especially Lucy Alexander. I wonder if she switches it off once the cameras stop. I hope so.

4. The mixed up order that the filming takes place. Presumably to save time, they first of all film an auction, then go with one of the winners to look at the house they've won. But they pretend it hasn't been won yet, so we first see the filming of the empty "unsold" house, then see the auction, then we meet the owner. Isn't telly clever our mam!

5. I like to pretend I am an historian from about 400 years in the future watching the programme in order to research the cultural conventions and "everyday lives" of early 21st century folk. I make mental notes like "People in this era liked neutral colours, still suffered from male pattern baldness and did not need a teleport room".

6. Behind almost every house that gets won at auction is the hidden ghastliness of someone else's doomed life - probably an elderly person who has recently died or some hapless renter who got caught in a spiral of debt, addiction and petty crime. We never get to meet the previous occupants of the house (they have been swept out of existence) but there are clues... so many clues... and for me that's a huge part of the awful fun of the programme. Seeing the squalor of a kitchen that also has a bath in it, or a filthy 1970s sofa with a little vase of dusty plastic flowers on a nearby table... Looking at tabby-vomit carpets that even the jolly presenters can't find a nice word for... And imagining the lives of those occupants, then playing their fates on fast-forward reverse-rewind - from the moment they are buried or incarcerated to the point when they moved into the property, all smiles and optimism. And the "journey" in between those two points. It's a stark reminder of the depressingly real lives that people in this rich rich country must endure. And like the sexism and indoor smoking on Mad Men, it's never properly brought to our attention. We have to "decode" it ourselves. Who knew Homes Under the Hammer was such a damningly subtle critique of the precariousness of modern life?

7. And the other side of the coin is the winners - inevitably dreary middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual couples who are about to make even more money... builder Dads and their lucky non-university going sons who are going to be sheltered from the recession, and immigrant investors of course. When someone with a bad haircut, no dress sense and a slightly common accent shows up with £400,000 cash and admits they were previously in banking, you end up wondering if you're in the wrong job.

8. Will we ever sicken of seeing makeovers of any description? The "money shot" almost literally of the programme is when we revisit the homes after they've been bought, and whoosh! That lounge which looks like a messy mass suicide took place on the set of Abigail's Party is now a beige and cream minimalist migraine - all redone with bits and pieces from the remaindered corner of Wickes. I especially like it when the "before" is clearly better than the "after", or the auction winners have been lazy and done absolutely no improvement work at all.

9.The national nature of the show means that no stone is left uncovered - so at one point we're in some leafy West London suburb where a one bedroom flat above a hairdressers with no windows is three quarters of a million pounds, then we're in an ex-mining community in County Durham and a three bedroom house with large garden will put you back £20,000. Every episode shows the country slowly sinking further and further into that north-south inequality divide. Again, nobody really brings this up on the show. But our future historians will find this fascinating and it will help explain the Civil War of 2134 perfectly.

10. Who said it's not educational (me!) I was wrong. Knock down that partition wall. Put decking in the garden. Take the pine panelling off the walls. Don't have a boiler in the bedroom. Kitchens need updating every 4 months as they always end up looking "dated". Beige carpets always win. My "doer-up" skill has raised from 23 to 54 since watching the show. Heroin of tv I say!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Not a vicious review

I was kind of dreading watching new ITV sitcom Vicious, despite liking retro. Vicious is just like a 1970s sitcom, filmed in an obvious set, with studio laughter and comedy gay stereotypes - played by Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen. This long-standing, ageing gay couple are an only slightly updated version of the 1960s camp radio pair Julian and Sandy, with lineage to Larry Grayson and John Inman of the 1970s. Piss-elegant, melodramatic, bitchy, vain, delusional and somewhat predatory, they embody almost every Daily Mail stereotype about gay men ever spat out over the last 50 years. As third wheel, Frances de la Tour plays their faithful fag hag, a role that she has been preparing her entire career for. When a handsome young man moves in upstairs, how we will laugh at the tragic way these two vicious queens and their hag pointlessly fight over him. The curtains in their living room are always drawn (because daylight is so cruel on withered skin, as Blanche Dubois first told us), Mother is always on the phone, there's a 20 year old dog called Balthazar about to join a half dozen urns of previous dogs on the mantlepiece and the pair trade quips about their cataracts, failed careers and the humble working class beginnings that they struggle to hide. "You're from Wigan!" "Oh you bitch!"

But it's all been done before though - as the 1960s film based on a play, Staircase, starring similarly respectable actors Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as the couple in question. Although that film was disliked at the time, and pretty much sank without trace, some of its put-downs are outrageously funny, and there's enough pathos to slightly elevate it above mere slapcampstick. It's perhaps surprising that it's taken all this time to come full circle, although perhaps not. I was prepared to hate Vicious. But I couldn't. Sure, the main characters are not likeable or good PR for the gay community, but I no longer feel that any single gay character on tv is having to do the work of fully representing all gay people who ever lived. When, finally, a 7ft tall, black, NBA player can come out of the closet and the world doesn't come to an end, when my nephew can tell members of his class "My uncles are gay and there's nothing wrong with that!" when some random child tells him he's gay, then perhaps we can view Vicious as silly, camp fun and not get too upset about its political ramifications. We will never move to being "post-gay" (whatever that means), but I suspect that in a couple of decades we will be "post-gay-rights" (at least in the West), and my nephew won't have to make any defensive statements because gay won't even be an insult. We are not there yet, but it's coming.

I've never met anyone exactly like the characters in Vicious in real life - as stereotypes they're total exaggerations of course, but I do recognise little glimpses of them in other people, and sometimes in bits of myself. But their bickering also reminds me of plenty of long-term heterosexual couples I've seen arguing while "in company". Vanity and delusion are clearly not the province of gay people - and the most predatory person in the programme is actually the heterosexual woman. I guess I feel that Jacobi and McKellen are slightly wasted on these sorts of roles - after one episode they feel somewhat one-dimensional and predictable. I'm not sure that an ITV sitcom format will even allow character complexity to develop, or whether it even should. But I will continue to watch. If anything, it's a respite from the parade of beautiful under 30s who it's impossible to escape from on telly.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Good, The Bad and The Portmanteau

I was glad to see the release on DVD of the film V/H/S as it sees a return to one of my favourite sub-genres of film - the portmanteau horror. Portmanteaus (or anthologies) are like a (comic-)book of short stories rather than a full novel, although there is a central conceit or thread which binds together the individual tales. This often involved a group of strangers thrown or trapped together with each recounting a strange dream or fear they'd had, with the resulting "twist" being that they are all turn out to be dead.

One of my favourite conceits is the antique shop run by Peter Cushing in From Beyond The Grave - all the customers come in and attempt to swindle him in order to get hold of some knick-knack or other - but more fool them, because that mirror they got for half price is actually haunted and contains the trapped spirit of a very persuasive mass murderer!

The conceit for V/H/S involves a group of petty criminals who have been paid to break into a house and retrieve a video tape. They find a dead man sitting in a chair, surrounded by tapes, and each member of the gang vanishes after watching a tape. It's nice to see the moral certainties of the genre continuing as baddies get their come-uppances.

Despite the purposefully grainy, "amateur" nature of the film, the stories are certainly passable, with the first one (about a group of obnoxious frat boys who have the tables turned on them when they set out to illicitly make a sex tape) and the last one (about another group of slightly less obnoxious guys who accidentally gate-crash and mess up an exorcism, thinking it's a Halloween party) being the best.

Portmanteaus hit their heyday in the 60s and 70s, with British film Amicus producing about a half dozen of them, including Dr Terror's House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood and Tales from the Crypt. As well as the horror stalwarts like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, it's always fun to see well-known British faces like Tom Baker, Roy Castle, Alan "Fluff" Freeman, Diana Dors and Joan Collins cropping up - there's a nice pairing for example of Jon Pertwee and Geoffrey Bayldon in The House That Dripped Blood (where Pertwee is a horror film actor who buys a haunted cloak from strange shop-keeper Bayldon). The two had a long standing tv relationship as Wurzel Gummidge and the Crow Man.

Amicus produced its last portmanteau in 1980, The Monster Club, which was also the first one I saw, and aged around 9, it did manage to terrify me, despite probably being one of the least scary of the lot - and having some pretty unconvincing monsters! The Monster Club is set in a nightclub (for monsters naturally) and the stories are interspersed with musical numbers which take up quite a bit of time (although I do have a soft spot for The Stripper, which is belted out by Stevie Lange). The stories are based around a poster of the monster family tree which is derived from the writing of R. Chetwynd Hayes who came up with the idea (and is also a character in the film). The vampire Vincent Price, who befriends him and introduces him to the club, explains:

First we have the primate monsters, vampires, werewolves and ghouls – but everyone knows about those. Now pay attention: A vampire and a werewolf would produce a werevamp. A werewolf and a ghoul would produce a weregoo. A vampire and a ghoul would produce a vamgoo. A weregoo and a werevamp would produce a shaddy. A weregoo and a vamgoo would produce a maddy. A werevamp and a vamgoo would produce a raddy. If a shaddy were to mate with a raddy or a maddy, it would result in a mock (which frankly, is just a polite name for a mongrel).

The first story is about a shadmock which can cause all your skin to melt off - very messy - by whistling - so do try not to make one fall in love with you just so you can run off with his family silver. The poor shadmock lives a lonely life in a gorgeous country house which most of us will only ever get to see if we hold National Trust cards. He is supposed to be vile to look upon, although I think all he needs really is a bit of fake tan and a better haircut. In fact, when my poor fella (trying to be affectionate), stroked my hair the other day, I shouted "Don't! You've made me look like a shadmock!"

For me, the scariest story in The Monster Club was the last one about a film director who, while out scouting for new locations, gets trapped in the isolated village of Loughville. Surrounded by dry ice - it clearly has its own microclimate - it appears full of interbred drooling locals, but in fact they're ghouls who intend to eat him. Only the inn-keeper's daughter Luna, a "humghoul" (a cross between a human and a ghoul) who speaks in a debilitating Norfolk dialect, offers a chance of survival. Sam, the movie director is swash-bucklingly played by Stuart Whitman, who is a long way from the 50s beefcake roles he used to have.

And there's a wonderful "oh no, we're back at the chateau!" moment as the final twist, which to someone who had only ever seen children's films with happy endings, felt awfully unfair and stayed with me for YEARS afterwards. The middle one is about a vampire Dad and is the "comedy" story - there's usually a bit of comedy hiding in one of the segments, particularly cases where someone is trying to exorcise a rambunctious poltergeist. You just have to grit your teeth and see it through, because at least there'll be another story along in 15 minutes or so. That's the beauty of the format.

1980 probably marks the point where it was impossible to produce any more authentic Amicus portmanteaus, as audiences were becoming too sophisticated by then - and anyway, the age of the proper video nasty was underway, and there's an innocence to those portmanteaus that can quickly become kitsch if not done properly.

The series was parodied by Steve Coogan's Dr Terrible's House of Horrible in 2001, with one episode "And Now the Fearing" being a proper homage to the portmanteau involving 3 characters trapped in a lift, and with some wonderfully kitsch 1970s sets. My favourite involves Julia Davies from Nighty Night who is tormented by a murderous coffee table (this actually wasn't that far from the killer piano in an Amicus portmanteau called Torture Garden).

So seeing V/S/H inspired me to do some Amazon searching and I've managed to get hold of all of Amicus' back catalogue. I only have one left to watch - Asylum - which unfortunately I could only get a copy with German subtitles on, but never mind. I hear that V/H/S 2 is coming out soon, so maybe this is the start of new era of portmanteau awfulness!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

I'm ready for my cavity search Mr De Mille

I have been watching Prisoners Wives, an austere, relentlessly nihilistic (it's set in Sheffield) BBC drama that's just finished its second series and feels awfully right for the Narnian times we are currently living in - always recession and never summer.

Our last decade had Footballers Wive$ - a campy soap for the gaudier good times. It reflected the consumerist nonsense of New Labour gurus hanging out on celebrity yachts and was as bubbly and vacuous as a glass of warm Chardonnay (which was what one of the characters was actually called). It was blingtastic nonsense - although I watched every episode all I can remember about it is Tanya Turner's talon-like painted nails scraping down the back of her latest man, possibly on a private jet. Oh, and Joan Collins was wheeled out towards the end, threatening to send someone old enough to be her great-great-great grandson back to the favelas. The title always irritated me due to its lack of apostrophes - even one in the wrong place would have at least shown they'd tried, and the awful American dollar sign that they replaced the final s with. I guess Footballers Wive£ wouldn't have worked.

I don't like the title of Prisoners Wives either - what it is with these shows that position women as appendages to men? Can you imagine Footballers Husbands or Prisoners Husbands or even Ballerinas Husbands - not on prime time at least, although I may have just invented a niche market.

So despite my mother urging me to watch PW, I refused until one of those evenings when I forgot to turn the tv off and it kind of just took over my evening. And it is strangely compelling, drawing you in with its bleak morality tales of fallen men and the women who love them. It is pure Dickens in other words.

The Queen of Prisoners Wives is brassy Franny, played by Polly Walker (who has previously done wicked women in Rome and Caprica). At the start of the series she is a ghastly nouveau riche, living in an enormous McMansion, and whiling away the lonely hours with pilates and spinning classes. Pedalling on a bike that's going nowhere - it's a METAPHOR you see. Except all the money is from her husband's gangster activities and bailiffs soon banish her back to the council estate from whence she came. She manages to keep up a tempestuous relationship with her awful husband Paul (one of those names that only men in their 40s now have). One minute she's flashing her lack of knickers at him, the next they're on the verge of breaking up. Or else he's arranging to use her as the blood-spattered pawn when assassinating one of his rival gang bosses. Franny feels like a reject from Footballers Wives - I suspect her and Tanya Turner went to the same tanning salon, although Franny has depths and her zingers are defence mechanisms to obscure the emptiness of her life and her disappointment at all the bad choices she's made.

On the other hand, class-wise, Harriet is the real deal - a proper dotty upper-middle, incredibly nervy and awkward and well-meaning and what Americans think of when they think of British people. She shopped her son to the police and the idea of visiting him in prison is so awful that she can't even get out of the car in the first episode but just sits there babbling to her faithful dog Basil. Her ungrateful, not-all-there son has a tough time in prison, and there is a brutally hilarious episode where Harriet has to smuggle drugs in so he won't get beaten up. Every stage of this insane journey is filled with crushing embarrassment - from Harriet unsuccessfully trying to score at the local rough council estate (the yobs just laugh at her and steal her money), to researching how to smuggle drugs inside her own body (opening a condom on a banana and then throwing the banana in the bin in disgust), to her frenzied panic with the sniffer dog and the inevitable strip search when it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.

And there is underclass Louisa, who deals drugs so she can get her family out of the ghetto, and keeps all the drug money inside a hole in the settee in her council flat. Her husband kindly took the rap for her and they're lying to their young son and pretending that Daddy's doing top secret work during the prison visits. You know the little boy's going to end up in care before the end. Natalie Gavin, the young actress who plays Louisa is amazing, and in every scene that she is in I end up crying like a baby.

There is a fourth character, Gemma (all Bambi-eyes and pregnancy bump) who comes to realise that her lovely husband isn't actually innocent at all, but in fact is running an illegal sweat shop full of Chinese illegal immigrants out of a shipping container, and has a side-interest in murdering people. During increasingly fraught prison visits, the couple trade bluffs and lies, until I'm completely confused about who believes who anymore. I haven't seen the last episode yet, but I suspect the prison will explode and everyone will die. I can't wait to watch series 2.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope

I turned on the news halfway through yesterday and there was footage of some striking miners in 80s haircuts so I knew Margaret Thatcher had died. As someone who grew up in County Durham, and had several members of my family who worked in the mining industry, I can't say I'm sorry to see the back of her. I would rather she had lived and her ideology died but instead it's the other way round.

She was a cold bird. Perhaps the country needed a dose of her in 1979, after a winter when bins and bodies didn't get collected. But she went on for too long, much too long. Lucky too, the country was ready to vote her out after one term, with her approval rating being only 23% at the end of 1980. But in 1982 Argentina did her a huge favour and invaded the Falklands. The win, along with an economic recovery helped to swing it for her, and she got in again in 1983. If only she had lost it.

Over the 1980s, the refrain from my parents was "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer". As "respectable" working class, my Dad worked overtime, ferrying drunks home who refused to pay up, on the late night bus shifts. My mother seemed to spend the whole decade wiping down work surfaces and taking college courses in evenings so she could eventually get a job. Because for families like us where mother stayed at home, the only route was underclass. My father's lone wage got so low in real terms that we had to have government assistance. Meanwhile, in our street, more and more families were placed on incapacity benefit.

After my mother got a job things improved, and you could probably view our family as a Thatcher success story - we even bought our council house, the children got to go to University and none of us have any County Court Judgements. But we were exceptions - and the rule was unemployment, crime, breakdown of families and pound shops. When Charles and Di visited my home town in 1983 to open a factory, the council painted the sides of bus stops on their route so they wouldn't have to see all the graffiti.

So I won't weep for Mrs Thatcher, who died after a several-month long stay at the Ritz - the loveliest old people's home in the country. And on the day she died, the ConDem Alliance started key changes to benefits for disabled people which Scope says will result in 600,000 people losing their financial support. Which her death pushed off the news headlines of course. How deliciously appropriate.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The First Coup Coup of Spring

Just back from a lovely week in Sorrento, Italy, where the temperatures approached scorchio 20 degrees, and my pasty skin, not having seen an sunlight in months, instantly frizzled and fell off, like a vampire.

I brought along Coup, a very simple but addictive card game for 3-6 players which involves trying to wipe out everyone by amassing money in order to have them assassinated or "couped". Each player takes the role of a rich Italian family, so it seemed appropriate. Some cards allow you to accelerate the amount of money you can get or allow you to steal it from other players. There's a lot of bluffing - you can lie and pretend you have an Assassin card to kill off someone else's card. But that person can then lie and say they're holding the Contessa, which blocks Assassins. If you're challenged and found out to be lying, you automatically lose a card. I played with my fella and his sister, who are both master strategists and tend to send each other birthday cards that say things like "Power is Everything" on them. As expected, I didn't do too well. My sister-in-law tended to continuously claim she had the Ambassador, which allowed her to switch cards. I couldn't work out my fella's strategy but it involved a lot of him being very silent and thinking hard. I suspect both my opponents were lying most of the time, except for the rare times when I challenged them about lying. Then they always revealed they were telling the truth. Being a risk-avoidant sort of person, I tended to play an honest game, not claiming to have any cards in my hand that I didn't have. Once or twice, this resulted in me winning, as my opponents weren't able to conceive of someone telling the truth ALL the time. And once I won because I didn't understand the rules properly, causing my opponents to incorrectly think I was playing out some huge bluff, whereas in fact I was ignorant. I suspect I am the Kim Jong-Un of Coup.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Not at all surprising

In 1996, Henry Adams, writing in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, noted that 80% of men who were both homophobic and identified as “exclusively heterosexual” got erections when watching gay porn. The moral of the story is that the lady doth protest too much. Or if you want it smutty, the squeaky wheel wants to get greased. And scientific study has been backed up by that ever-growing chorus line of gay-hating conservative fellows who are better at kicking those heels higher in the air than the fabulous Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall: George Rekers, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Phil Hinkle, Roberto Arango, Pastor Eddie Long, Troy King, Richard Curtis, Glenn Murphy Jr, Ed Schrock, Robert Allen, Mark Foley and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So is anyone but the most gullible kitten really surprised at the recent scandal surrounding Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most important Catholic in the UK and so deliciously homophobic that he appears to have stepped out of a magical time portal direct from the 1895 trial of Oscar Wilde? On the verge of retirement, four men have claimed that he made unwanted sexual advances towards them. At first, the Cardinal denied it, but now he’s resigned and admitted that his sexual conduct has at times “fallen beneath the standards expected of me”. So rather than being remembered as a judgemental bigot he’ll now be remembered as a judgemental bigoted hypocrite. What a lovely legacy when he’s written up in the history books. Future generations are going to think the whole lot of us were bonkers.

Cardinal O’Brien has been pretty much on-message about the supposed amorality of gay people for many years. Let the record show:

In December 2004, the Cardinal used his Christmas address to the Scottish Parliament to suggest gays and lesbians were "captives of sexual aberration".

In September 2005 he was reported in various newspapers as saying “'We place innumerable children in peril if we forget certain immutable human truths; children need a male and female role model in a permanent relationship”, and “A mass of evidence attests to the chronic instability of unmarried and same-sex partnerships. This is to say nothing of the widely documented promiscuity which accompanies the homosexual lifestyle.” Apparently, kids adopted by same-sex couples could be at risk of "low self-esteem, stress, confusion regarding sexual identity, increased mental illness, drug use, promiscuity, sexually transmitted infections and homosexual behaviour." And finally children adopted by homosexual couples would become "guinea pigs" in a "distorted social experiment".

In December 2006 he was reported as saying “I would certainly say we are working towards the destruction of any sort of moral standards… It doesn't seem to be going at quite the same speed in other places… We don't want [gay marriage] in our country. We've gone far enough and we can't go any further with the destruction of society. The moral tone of our country has gone downhill." His opinion on adoption by same-sex couples: “It is an immoral decision. We are descending into a spiral of immorality.”

In 2009, when asked if he disliked gay people he replied: "I'm not sure if 'dislike' is the right word… I am aware that there is a reasonable percentage of the human race who have homosexual inclinations, and I am sorry if that's the way John Smith or Mr Y feel it's necessary to exercise their sexuality. I would say it's against the natural law which governs the human race. Not any man-made law or church-made law. It's just against nature… I feel sorry that people aren't able to fulfil their sexuality in the normal way of human beings." How charitable.

In March 2012 he said “When we talk about the thin end of the wedge, we remember the Abortion Act in 1967. We were told there would be clearly defined ways when abortions might take place, and now we know there have been about seven million abortions since that happened and further aberrations are hinted at this present time. That's what you'd see happen if same-sex unions were defined as marriage. Further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it has already degenerated into immorality." And he described the prospect of gay marriage as grotesque. Reading back through all that nonsense today, there’s a terrible sadness to it all – as well as a kind of Grand Guignol that almost spills over High Camp when you realise that he is speaking those words about himself.

As much as people were horrified by his remarks (and Stonewall awarded him the Bigot of the Year Award in 2012), plenty of people listened to them and took him seriously. Yet homophobia causes such a lot of trouble and pain for everyone it touches. It causes violence, pushes people into making awful, life-destroying choices, and scrunches up normal sexual desire into a dark little place in your soul, marked “disgusting”. What an enormous number of lives it has degraded and destroyed over the last 100 years. And all for nothing really. If there is a God, and this is what He actually wants, then count me out.

I would love for Cardinal O’Brien to be the last one. For closeted homophobes, especially important powerful ones, to stop talking about homosexuality altogether. As the older generations gradually die off, furious and impotent because they are leaving a world that no longer agrees with them, I suspect that one day, perhaps in 50 or 100 years, we won’t have any of these Exhibitions of Wasted Lives, screaming hatred because they think it will divert attention away from their lavender secret. But for now, we are seeing a kind of excision of poison – a seeping out of societal pus if you like and by God - it ain’t pretty.