Sunday, 31 March 2013

A wonderland of ideas

It could be read as a sign of the times that, when the news of the demise of Richard Griffiths broke a couple of days ago, the headlines read, over and again, that the “Harry Potter actor” had died.

It is highly doubtful that, no matter how lucrative were those films personally, Griffiths himself would have viewed them as his best or most important work.

That probably wouldn’t have been last year’s West End revival of Neil Simon’s bitter comedy, The Sunshine Boys, in which he starred to great effect opposite the bundle of combustible energy that is (Batman Returns actor!) Danny DeVito.

More likely, one might think, would be the cult classic Withnail and I, and both stage and film versions of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, both of which have been seen by large audiences, not simply a certain, limited class of theatregoer.

Not, I hasten to note, that there is anything wrong with Harry Potter – books and films alike are thoroughly delightful.

To be fair, this is hardly new. When John Gielgud departed life’s stage in 2000, the Daily Star marked his passing with headline: ‘Butler in Arthur dies’.

But it was akin to reading that the West End production of John Logan’s new play, Peter and Alice, was really just a big Bond reunion, since the author had written Skyfall (amongst many big screen hits), and the stars were M and Q.

It could hardly have been further from 007.

In the introduction to the script, Logan writes that, “many years ago”, in a biography of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice, he’d read that: “On June 26 1932 Alice opened the Lewis Carroll exhibition at Bumpus, the London bookshop. Beside her was Peter [Llewellyn] Davies, the original Peter Pan.”

And that is where Logan begins, wondering what they might have said to each other.

Having inspired Rev Charles Dodgson (Carroll) and JM Barrie to pen their classic children’s tales, both went on to face tragedy in their adult lives.

Having lost both parents to cancer, Peter lost a brother and any remaining childhood innocence in the mud of Flanders, with another brother apparently ending his own life a few years later.

For Alice, her own lost boys were two of three sons dying on the Western Front.

From icons of childhood to pained adulthood.

Logan’s play explore the legacy of being the models for those icons; the pressures it might bring, unable to escape that.

For Alice, it’s a blessing; a distraction from the tragedy. For Peter, a dreadful reminder of innocence lost; of the pain of growing up.

When the shallow set of a dusty storeroom in a bookshop rises to reveal a vast version of a toy theatre, with proscenium arch decorated by illustrations from the two books, Alice and Peter are joined not only by Dodgson and Barrie, but also by the characters that they gave their names to, and Logan can embark on a journey of memory.

Challenged by their muses, we explore the two authors; possessive and both sad and bitter in unhappy adult lives.

The question of whether Dodgson had paedophilic inclinations is not a new one. Logan deals with it carefully – it cannot be ignored when seen through today’s sensibilities.

If one wishes to see it through the prism of pop culture, it could perhaps be suggested that Dodgson here is reminiscent of Michael Jackson – a desperately unhappy adult who spends time with children in order to claim or reclaim the joy of childhood.

However, he also has Alice ask Peter whether Barrie “molested” him or his four brothers.

And here we have one of Logan’s ideas. ‘No’, responds Peter. Not physically.

But how much can what these authors did, using children as unwitting templates for something from which they could never escape, a form of abuse?

It’s worth noting here that there are vastly differing views of Dodgson’s apparent fondness for photographing young girls, which is touched on in the play.

While just over 50% of his surviving photographic work is of young girls, 60% of his portfolio is missing or destroyed, so it’s not possible to say with certainty what the rest contained – and his sketches show a much more varied subject matter.

It has also been said that, at that time, child nudes were a popular and mainstream Victorian art form – part of the ‘Victorian child cult’ and even appearing on Christmas cards, so there is a danger of seeing Dodgson through 21st-century eyes.

What is equally interesting, though, is that at around the same time as he invented the stories of Alice, his diaries became full of the rather Calvinistic view of himself as a “vile and worthless” sinner, which may possibly be reflected in his desire for ‘innocent’ companionship.

Anyway, that’s one of the questions that Logan doesn’t pretend to be able to answer.

The performances are superb. Ben Wishaw as Peter is awkward and angular and painfully vulnerable and angry.

At first stiff and of stiff upper lip, Judi Dench’s Alice succumbs eventually to a heart-rending sob as she remembers her lost sons. But her ability to also convey the Alice of childhood without it ever seeming cloying or false is an indicator of just why she is such a superb actor.

To be honest, I don’t know what I expected of the play. I bought tickets because Dench is on a list of actors that I have told The Other Half he must see.

The play itself turns out to be a challenging, intelligent and fascinating piece.

But back to that dumbing down.

The obsessive need to popularise everything is an infantilisation of thought. It’s at the heart of what has happened to the country’s public discourse over the last few decades, which is a major reason why it matters.

While there can be genuine benefits if it means, for instance, that someone decides to go and see the play because of that Bond connection, it also brings with it a concomitant infantilisation of thought.

That saw senior theatre critic Michael Billington of the Guardian not only try out a rather patronising joke at the expense of those he imagines to be thus mired in the pop culture world – “Anyone hoping to see Q and M will find themselves constantly confronted by Q and A” – as though people really cannot differentiate between actors playing different roles, but then himself complained at the lack of easy gratification by asserting that Logan’s play neither offers any “revelations” nor “shocks or startles by its insights”, as though this were actually the latest installment in the Bond franchise and such things were the necessary intellectual equivalents of all the pyrotechnics and car chases.

For Billington, the performances are the pleasure: perhaps it was he who had turned up expecting merely to see “Q and M”.

The performances are very much a pleasure, but so is seeing question after question, theme after theme, idea after idea revealed, like the layers of an onion being peeled back. And all ready for the audience to take away with them and mull at greater length.

Peter and Alice might be short at just a single, 90-minute act, but is far from flimsy.

There is nothing wrong with popular culture – a cultural diet can include Carry On films as well as Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean that we get all relativist about it, any more than trying to compare Abba and Beethoven.

It all seems to say: ‘we can’t do grown-up culture by itself any more: it’s too difficult.’ Or perhaps it’s simply that the easier something is, the more it sells.

In true chicken and egg fashion, it’s hard to know which came first – media reporting in this way or the public demanding it.

That production of The Sunshine Boys was met with some reviews that saw eyes rolled metaphorical at the physical contrast between the leads, decrying it as rather passé.

Well indeed. Simon’s piece is about a faded Vaudeville double act – so the physical contrast was precisely the sort of ‘obvious’ comic device that would have been around at the time.

The casting was done with this in mind – not as a pretence that, ‘oh, ha ha, we’ve thought of something new’.

The lack of understanding of something as simple as basic context was irritating and frustrating. It was an attempt at ‘clever’ reviewing without the understanding to be so.

At it seems to be part of a circle that include the ‘Harry Potter actor’ headlines, the desire for answers instead of the questions that provoke at least an effort at mental aerobics.

You never find yourself thinking like this in childhood.

Peter and Alice is on at the Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London until 1 June. A limited number of tickets are available on the day for £10.

The script will be published shortly by Oberon Books.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Forget a sacrificial (British) lamb at Easter

For more pics and info, follow @herdyshepherd1.
It seems that most everyone is feeling depressed at the unrelenting tramp tramp of winter, but if you think you have it bad, then spare a thought for the country’s hill farmers, for whom this latest snow is proving fatal to many new-born lambs.

There’s something particularly poignant about that as Easter approaches, given that the most traditional celebratory meal in many western countries is roast lamb.

That’s not just a matter of seasonality (the best lamb you could eat at this time of year would have been born last August), but it has a long religious tradition too.

In Christian terms, the use of ‘lamb of God’ to describe Jesus originates in John’s gospel, where it is credited to John the Baptist.

My school in Manchester, Fairfield High School for Girls, which was linked to the Moravians, had as its badge the lamb of God carrying a vexillum – a well-known motif and the seal of the Moravian church.

It goes far further back than Christianity, though: the paschal lamb, for instance, was one sacrificed and eaten at the Passover.

Although eating lamb at Easter seems a rather odd tradition in terms of Christianity: given that the lamb is a symbol of Christ, it’s a trifle cannibalistic, albeit not nearly as much so as transubstantiation.

Anyway, there have been calls on social media to support our farmers by making sure that any lamb we buy for Easter comes from the UK.

Actually, what would be far better would be to try to buy British throughout the year and not just as a sort of charitable act when headlines raise awareness.

British farming shouldn’t be a sort of charity case.

Agnus dei – lamb of God with vexillum.
There are a number of reasons why supporting our farmers would be positive.

To start with, we need to seriously consider sustainability in terms of the food chain – the first months of this year have surely proved to everyone just what a convoluted food chain means in reality, as the horsemeat scandal proved to have a large reach.

If we buy as locally as we can, we reduce that chain, and in doing that, we reduce the carbon footprint of our food too.

Better yet, if we can possibly buy from farmers’ markets and the like, we help to ensure that the producers get a decent rate for the product – not one that’s been squashed down as low as possible by a big company with the power to do so.

Nor are these the only points. We also need to think seriously about the UK’s food security. We produce a decreasing percentage of our own food, and that’s not good.

Some politicians appear to believe that this is not a problem – we can just fly food in from somewhere or other. So we get asparagus from Peru, which is pretty tasteless to start with – unsurprising, given the distance it has had to come: it’s a vegetable that needs to be eaten as soon as possible after harvesting to be at its best.

But setting aside the question of taste, the mass production of a non-indigenous crop for the foreign market is damaging Peru’s own water supplies, with wells that local communities rely on drying up.

And could anything really be as crazy as carnations grown for the European market – grown in Kenya?

They’re not even easy to grow in the south of Europe because of the vast amounts of water that they need – just think Jean de Florette.

There’s something that’s almost beyond screwed-up about that. After all, nobody needs carnations out of their natural season in this country or anywhere in Europe.

For anyone who thinks that such situations are good for developing world countries, no they’re not – as Joanna Blythman illustrates perfectly in Shopped: The shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets.

Yet again, it’s a good reason for anyone who likes to think of themselves as a shopper with a conscience to shop as locally as possible and as seasonally as possible.

But back to food security – it has to be a matter of simple logic that we should be producing as much of our food as possible. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that.

And that means remembering who produces out food – and reconnecting with them.

Personally, I’m not planning on lamb this weekend – but whatever I do decide to cook, the fresh ingredients will be bought, on Saturday, from farmers and artisanal producers and small, independent suppliers.

And please, if you can, help to support our domestic farming and agriculture. You’ll get a far better product too.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Why I'm not calling for Richard Littlejohn to be sacked

We are a rainbow community in a rainbow world.
There is a petition doing the rounds, even as you read this, calling for the Daily Mail to sack columnist Richard Littlejohn.

The reason for the petition is the death, a few days ago and reported yesterday, of Lucy Meadows.

Lucy was a primary school teacher in Lancashire who had just transitioned over the Christmas holiday.

The school seems to have been very supportive, but the story of the letter that was sent to parents telling them that the teacher they’d known as Mr (Nathan) Upton would be henceforth known as Miss Meadows, was picked up by certain national tabloids.

And so she came in for what is known as ‘a tabloid monstering’.

Littlejohn, who has a prurient interest in trans people (‘how do they pee?') was far from alone in his approach, but the Mail being the Mail, it stood out.

After detailing his sympathy for trans people, he launched into the old ‘but won’t somebody think of the children’ routine, always a great standby in such cases.

His argument – such as it is – centred on the idea that children wouldn’t be able to cope with their teacher changing sex.

But the problem is not children.

Children accept things easily. They’re not worried by two men or two women loving each other, for instance, any more than by the idea that an old geezer lives at one of the poles with a shed load of elves and reads their letters every year.

As the song from South Pacific says:

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught …

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

No I’m not going to claim that I’ve seen any scientific research on this, but I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence that children are far better at simply accepting people for what they are than are the adults who worry that the children won’t be able to cope.

It’s some adults who can’t cope; who find the issues confusing. Not children.

Now Littlejohn is a bigoted, rent-a-gob bully, but he is not the real problem.

If Littlejohn were sacked tomorrow, the Daily Mail would still be around spreading it’s bile and its bigotry. Jan Moir, anyone?

At the end of the day, Littlejohn is irrelevant.

And the Mail is far from alone.

Earlier this year, after Suzanne Moore (who writes for both the Mail and Guardian, amongst others) made a snotty comment, in effect, about trans women not being real women, in an article about something completely different.

After a Twitter row resulted in Moore storming off the microblogging site, she was ‘defended’ in the next edition of the Observer by Julie Burchilll, in her own best rent-a-gob bigot mode.

Burchill has form on this – and the Guardian/Obs has form on publishing the rantings of ‘radical feminists’ on the subject, including Burchill.

It essentially works along the lines of: ‘I’m a real woman, you’re not – and I will take the piss out of you in a bullying fashion but that will be okay in a way it wouldn’t be if I were bullying you because you’re female or Black or disabled’.

Equality, eh?

But then, that’s the sort of way in which Julie ekes out a living. And we do all have to make a living.

The point here, though, is that attitudes of hate toward trans women (they mostly seem to forget trans men) cross political boundaries, just as seeing organisations as more important than individuals sees the Catholic church defending child abusers and the Socialist Workers’ Party defending alleged rapists.

Trans people may only be a small percentage of the overall population, but they suffer dreadful and way above average persecution and violence and hatred. Hatred, I suggest, that is perhaps mostly about fear and confusion.

And trans people are, simply because of the confusion among many of the public, possibly one of the least likely groups to fight back against media bullying and vilification. Which, of course, simply makes them an easier target for what are, in essence, a bunch of cowards.

But however much Littlejohn himself was bang out of order, he is far from unique and he is not ‘The Problem’. Were Littlejohn to disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow, transphobia would not be consigned to history with him.

We need a cultural change in attitudes toward trans people – indeed, toward both sex and sexuality as a whole.

We don’t know how or why Lucy Meadows died. It was not in ‘suspicious circumstances’, according to police, which is often code for suicide, but the actual reason is for the coroner to decide.

And, even if it was suicide, we do not know that the newspaper coverage was the direct cause.

We can guess – but we need to understand that that is what it is: speculation.

What we do know for certain is that Lucy Meadows was ‘monstered’ by some of the national media, and that there was NO public interest argument for treating her that way.

It was sensationalism and the invasion of privacy at its worst. And trans people suffer particularly from this.

And whether it directly lead to her death or not, it cannot but have made her life difficult and unpleasant for absolutely no reason other than titillating copy and profit.

But another reason for not supporting a get-rid-of-Littlejohn campaign is this: that while it is easy and absolutely correct to lay blame for bullying behaviour and sensational ‘reporting’ at the door of the Mail – and the Sun and others – those things do not exist in a vacuum.

There are people who buy those publications or read them online; who lap up the bigotry and the intolerance and the ‘confusion’; who take an almost orgasmic pleasure in reading views that accord with and confirm their own.

Getting rid of Littlejohn – no matter how deliciously pleasant an idea – would change not one jot of that. It would progress nothing at all.

Ultimately, we need education – and we need a big cultural change.

And I would suggest that this is also yet one more example of why we need proper regulation of the media and a proper understanding of the right of privacy and what ‘public interest’ really means.

• To find out more, please follow@ TransMediaWatch on Twitter.

@DavidAllenGreen is also well worth following on Twitter. David is a lawyer who is the legal advisor to Trans Media Watch, and helped with their contribution to the Leveson Inquiry. David’s blog can be found at

Tim Fenton @zelo_street is also well worth reading.

And there are many, many more, so please look for them and see what they’re saying now and will do in the future.

Update Saturday 23 March

It's now clearer about the level of harassment that Lucy Matthews was suffering, as some of her emails reveal.

Both she and others complained about the treatment to the Press Complaints Commission.

Although the Daily Mail has removed the Littlejohn column, it has also defended it, and accused people of creating a "Twitterstorm" about the issue.

It remains absolutely the case that we do not know what happened and whether the Littlejohn column or the general media coverage are linked in any way to Lucy Matthews's death.

What we do know is that she was harassed and 'monstered' for no legitimate reason.

A candlelit vigil has been organised outside the Daily Mail offices at Northcliffe House, 2 Derry Street, Kensington, London W8 5TT. for Monday at 6.30pm.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Spring is here! (well, sort of)

The dwarf daffs have bucked the trend.
It might be difficult to believe, but today was the vernal equinox – the first day of spring.

No, I know: looking out of the window – in much of the east of the country at least – you wouldn’t be able to tell.

The sky is a blanket of grey-white cloud, putting an unrelenting dampener on everything.

As we head into evening, the birds that were at least twittering to each other under that cover have gone quiet, as the rain starts to fall again.

Someone said to me yesterday that it feels as though we’ve already had six months of winter. And it's impossible to disagree.

Temperatures are below what they should be and the gloom seems to be sticking around.

Peas, broad beans, a hint of runner & radish.
The bright spot on the horizon is that the vernal equinox is a tipping point. Since, from now on (for six months) the days will be longer than the nights in this hemisphere, the sun will – eventually – break through and temperatures will rise.

But for the moment, while some of the country is having better weather, many of us remain buried beneath that cloud.

And frankly, it feels as though we’re underneath a duvet where someone has farted.

Of our bulbs, the crocuses have been and gone – without the weather to enjoy them – and we now have dwarf daffs, which are managing a glorious display that, frankly, gives the bird to the weather.

From the perspective of the garden, this late, late spring would seem to be a big problem. Yet I do wonder if it’s actually a bit of a blessing too.

In only my second year of gardening – and arguably this is really only my first serious one – the weather is meaning that I can’t simply take what I read in a book, a magazine or a seed packet at face value.

In other words, I cannot be a book-learned gardener.

Perhaps the fact that I have all those seed cells sprouting new, delicate plants is simply beginner’s luck, but maybe not.

There is an extent to which I decided to start things off that way even though seed instructions suggested sowing straight outside last month.

In other words, I looked at the weather, looked at the packets – and then made up my own mind based on what I saw and felt was happening.

This, I think, may be a good sign for the future of my gardening. Perhaps I'm more in tune with something than I could have known 12 months ago when I started this project in such hesitating fashion?
It really doesn't look much like spring, does it?

What I do know is that it was a delightful ego rub to read Monty Don asserting, in My Roots, that real gardeners are those who sow from seed rather than buying a load of plants.

Mind, nature is more than capable of deflating ego. Slugs and snails are the perfect vehicles for that.

But I have strategies in mind and in place.

The potager is in a far better situation than it was last year.

With all the weeds and the dead and dying bush removed, there’s nowhere for slugs to hide during the day time. So the easiest option for the forthcoming months is to make sure that none get a foothold.

The potager, after carrots were sown at the weekend.
And a Dutch hoe makes attacking weeds before they can grow much really easy.

I also have copper ready to encircle any tender young plant. And will be getting copper tape to wind around any pot in which I intend to grow salad leaves, for instance.

There will be an odd ‘slug inn’ – a pot sunk into the ground and containing yeasty beer in which greedy slugs and snails will drown – but they’ll be set away from the plants I’m defending.

And there will, of course, be after-dark patrols, with torch and latex gloves to get rid of the little buggers.

I have learnt a thing or two already.

Urban compost buckets: perfect for small spaces.
And I will learn more.

But I have just this inkling – this tiny sense in myself – that maybe I do have green fingers; that maybe I have a greater connection with and sense of the soil than could have been expected.

In the meantime, I now have two 'urban compost' buckets that will allow me to create my own fertiliser and compost in a tight urban environment. It's another step up and solves the problem of space.

At breakfast in the canteen this morning, I was talking with someone who has an allotment. We hit a point where we burst into life discussing how wonderful it is to grow from seed and things germinate and develop.

Life-affirming; magical; magnificent; wondrous.

And even when we find ourselves, as now, battling the unseasonal elements, we can lift ourselves by knowing that, eventually, spring really will be with us.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Leveson delusion

You could be forgiven for imagining that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.

One look at some of the UK’s newspapers could lead readers to believe that we are on the cusp of a dictatorship – heading into Stalinist/Hitlerian* terrain.

After all, in the wake of that dreadful Lord Leveson’s inquiry, the Prime Minister has said that the proposed new system of regulation would do some pretty hideous things.

It would mean:

• upfront apologies from the press to victims;

• fines of 1% of turnover for publishers, up to £1m;
• a self-regulatory body with independent appointments and funding;

• a robust standards code;

• a free arbitration service for victims;

• a speedy complaints system.

Oh me, oh my – who on Earth could find such things acceptable?

So it’s clear why the likes of the Telegraph, News International and the Daily Mail are all in a state of high dudgeon, and talking about seeking legal advice to see if they would really have to sign up to the proposals.

Personally, I like the idea of standards. Although that would obviously upset a publication that, in January this year, paid for paparazzi photos of an eight-year-old child leaving a gym class with her mother, model Heidi Klum, and suggested that Ms Klum was not the only “leggy beauty” in the family.

Readers may be interested to know that I have tweeted the latter link at the paper itself a few of times. There’s never any response. Can’t imagine why.

Anyway, setting aside the hysterics of the press itself, amongst the members of the Twitterati who are up in arms about all this nasty censorship, there exist a number of delusions.

So it seems that the time is right to examine these.

Delusion 1

We already have the laws to deal with press excesses.

No. We don’t. We have laws to deal with hacking and so forth, yes.

But we have no privacy law. We have no law to stop the Mail’s creepy peado-lite obsession with children.

We have no law to ensure that lies are corrected properly and on a scale that is the same as how the lie was originally printed.

Delusion 2

Regulation is the end of life as we know it!

Even a passing acquaintance with some recent stories, from horsemeat in ‘beef’ products to the banks causing the financial crisis, would suggest that regulation, properly enforced, might have helped to avoid these problems – in other words, be a force for good.

Similarly, with major pharmaceutical companies routinely withholding trial data on drugs (see Ben Goldacre), strong regulation, properly enforced, is required to stop this, for the sake of everyone concerned and, most of all, for patients.

The majority of people do not believe that regulation is a bad thing – or that any of the industries referenced above would not be better with meaningful regulation, properly enforced.

Indeed, according to various polls, the public at large seem, in general, to be in favour of meaningful regulation of the media.

Which of course explains why the press had to go way over the top in its hyperbolic ravings, invoking Churchill and God knows what else, in order to get past the rational stuff and whip up knee-jerking hysteria.

Delusion 3

Why does a private company like Hacked Off get to have “an audience” with politicians discussing this?

Actually, this is less a delusion and more either simple stupidity or deliberate disingenuousness. Take your pick.

The reality is that the vast majority of media organisations are private companies. How many ‘audiences’ has Rupert Murdoch had with prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher on?

Delusion 4

We have a free press!

For most people, the notion of a ‘free press’ is bound up with ideas of that press working in favour and on behalf of the majority. They don’t tend to believe that the idea simply means being free to publish anything.

We have no such thing in the UK.

The majority of our media is owned by private individuals/companies, who use their publications and other media outlets to push their own agendas.

Thus it should come as no surprise that the Daily Mail loves to rabble rouse on matters to do with tax. After all, it’s owner, Viscount Rothermere, is himself a foreign domicile tax exile. As are the Telegraph-owning Barclay brothers.

But how much the bulk of the British mainstream media believes in the idea of working in favour of the majority can be found in its apparently easy readiness to promote the government’s demonisation of anyone who is on benefits – the majority of whom are in work.

It has shown itself happy not to stand up for ‘the people’, but to demonise the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable.

The majority has been happy to turn a blind eye to Iain Duncan Smith’s lies – and also to those of David ‘the NHS is safe with me’ Cameron.

The media can be a force for good.

But let’s not be a bunch of romantic fools about this: at present in the UK, it is, for the most part, simply the agendas of private individuals and companies that are being promoted by our ‘free’ press.

And just like many another industry, proper regulation, properly enforced, can make it better.

What will be interesting is to see how this same media reacts to Cameron’s u-turn on regulation.

But then again, it’s difficult to imagine that the Conservative Party (or at least the Parliamentary part of it) has many illusions about retaining joint power or gaining full power at the next general election.

There are reasons that it has been so cavalier about its lies and its taking of a bulldozer to the entire social contract in the UK.

* Select as desired.