Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A real horror story for Halloween

A victim of the cult of paranoia
A day ago, reports emerged that two men have now been convicted of murder and are awaiting sentence. While always involving tragedy, this particular crime had a particularly nasty element to it.

To précis: Bijan Ebrahimi, a disabled man living on the outskirts of Bristol, thought that he saw local youngsters vandalising his flower baskets and decided to take pictures of them doing so. Evidence, you might think.

But a neighbour saw him and decided that it was obvious that photographing youngsters meant that he was a raving paedophile. And the neighbour then spread the word. And other neighbours fell for it – happy to believe that taking photographs of youngsters means you’re a kiddy fiddler.

Ebrahimi told the police about the vandalism – and about the harassment that had started, but he was the one who was arrested on suspicion of breaching the peace, as a mob cried ‘paedo, paedo’.

More rumours were running around, with claims that he’d been burned out of a previous home.

Released from police custody with absolutely no charge against him – and the police had checked his camera and his computer and found absolutely nothing of a dubious nature – he was dead within two days, after being beaten into a state of unconsciousness before white spirit was poured over him and he was set ablaze.

Lee James, a 24-year-old father, has admitted murder, and his neighbour, Stephen Norley, has admitted assisting in the crime.

Various police and call centre staff are being investigated for their role in the entire debacle, because they ignored Ebrahimi’s pleas for help.

And at the heart of this horrific series of events is the apparent reality that merely taking pictures of youngsters or children is now deemed, by some individuals – who then become the mob – as absolute proof of paedophilia.

It is difficult to know where to start with this.

Salem, the Nazis, McCarthyism – we never seem to learn.

A widespread climate of paranoia exists about child abuse – even after the Paulsgrove riots and the case of the Welsh paediatrician who was driven from her home because some intellectually challenged individuals ‘thought’ that paediatrician and paedophile were one and the same, and then further ‘thought’ that they should do something about it.

Or to be more accurate, this is paranoia about child abuse by strangers – so-called ‘stranger danger’.

Yet the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the abuse of children happens in the home and is perpetrated by family or friends.

Did you get that? The fact is that the vast majority of abuse is by someone known to the child – not a stranger.

So how do we deal with this? How do we stop it happening again?

Well, to start with, greater responsibility from mainstream news media would be welcome.

Part of the current culture of fear is down to sensationalist reporting of a very few cases where abduction has been involved. It can, at the least, create a perception of the dangers as being far more widespread than they are.

At worst, it helps to provide the climate in which the mob mentality can take over, and it can provide a sense of legitimacy for those who might want to move toward actual vigilantism.

But then we see much the same thing in coverage of other issues – not least at present, welfare.

As government has started a process of demonising the disabled and anyone else on benefits, so much of the media has been complicit: choosing, for ideological reasons, not to challenge statistics that, in some cases, have subsequently been shown to be fictions.

The joys of a ‘free’ press, eh?

Innocent people ‘monstered’ and demonised – dead as a result – and a point where merely pointing a camera at youngsters or children can see you branded a paedophile.

And the mob doesn’t even question it.

Indeed, some commenting online have sought to suggest that Ebrahimi was obviously ‘dodgy’ for photographing the youngsters or children from inside his house.

That’s right – blame the victim.

The police have categorically stated that there were no indecent pictures on his camera or computer, yet still people question why he was taking pictures at all – and suggesting that that in itself is now an inherently dubious thing to do.

What an utterly crazed idea. Do people really look at someone taking pictures in the street and think, if there’s a child anywhere near: ‘what’s that nonce doing?’

The facts of Ebrahimi’s death are hideous enough – and by god I hope that some people in that area are feeling some damned serious guilt and shame right now – but the fact that an entirely innocent action is being seen as an indicator of something as serious as child abuse is pretty nearly as sick.

The media need to show responsibility – but so do we, in stopping to actually think before we leap to conclusions based on anything the media tells us and anything any neighbour tells us as gossip.

And we need to constantly ask the question of why on earth anyone would imagine that pointing a camera is indicative of an act of abuse in the first place.

And we think we live in a civilised society?

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

'A very debauched walk on the wild side'

Thomas de Quincey, haggard through drugs
Thanks to the joys of time travel, we can now go back in time to find out how the Daily Mail marked the death of another artist who used drugs, other than Lou Reed.

Thomas de Quincey

August 1785-December 1859

Thomas de Quincey, the notorious drug addict whose writings glamorised heroin for thousands of readers and triggered so-called ‘addiction literature’, has died at the age of 74.

The son of a Manchester merchant called Penson, de Quincy’s father died when he was just eight.

Thomas was a sensitive and sickly child whose mother was very strict and gave her children little sense of being loved. More concerned with her own intellectual pursuits, three years after being widowed, she changed her name to de Quincey and moved herself and her two sons to Bath, where Thomas was enrolled at King Edward’s School.

Later, mental weakness produced bouts of depression and he fled school and headed off to find his hero, William Wordsworth, but gave up quickly and spent time living as a vagrant.

It was in 1804, while at Oxford, that he started experimenting with heroin, claiming that he did so in order to cope with various ailments.

But de Quincey’s lack of discipline struck again and he quit university after failing to graduate, leaving to seek out a Bohemian lifestyle and the acquaintance of poets.

When he was 21, he received £2,000 from his late father’s estate, but spent it unwisely, being overly generous and having an addiction to buying books. In his later years, he had to hide, on occasions, in order to avoid the debt collectors.

In 1816, aged 31, he married Margaret Simpson, and although he had no money, his appetites took hold and they had eight children before she died in 1837.

It continues to defy belief that a healthy, hearty woman of childbearing age could simply die, as it is claimed she did.

De Quincey struggled to hold down a proper job, gaining the position of editor of the Westmorland Gazette in 1818, but resigning just a year later after the owners complained about his performance.

In 1821, he went to London to work as a translator, but the publication – initially anonymous – of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater brought him fame and a way of sustaining himself financially, being asked to write for various publications after its publication.

Until the end of his life, his periods of most creativity coincided with his heaviest drug use.

De Quincey influenced various people – from the macabre American writer Edgar Allen Poe to the scandalous Frenchman, Baudelaire and even the disabled and sexually confused Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges, while Berlioz’s morbid Symphonie fantastique is based on de Quincey’s drug-addled work.

It’s said that you reap what you sow – it is simply a wonder in de Quincey’s case, that it took so long.

But de Quincey, like other artistic, ‘sensitive’ types, legitimised and promoted the anti-establishment, anti-religion, anti-family excesses of the so-called ‘romantic’ movement, whose leading lights included the depraved Lord Byron.

“Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! That to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! That with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood....”

Those were the words of de Quincey. A man who made no apology for a life lived at full throttle. A man for whom the harvest took a long time coming.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Finally 'getting' the modern

Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Manet
At the end of a production period, when you’ve safely tucked up the publication in bed, a little relaxation is always in order.

And what could be better than the opportunity to gaze at some top-notch art for an hour or so?

That was the situation by mid-afternoon on Friday and, with dinner at Joe Allen and theatre to follow, I had a nice little gap in my calendar.

And given that I’d later be heading to the Aldwych/Strand, the best possible solution presented itself in a first ever visit to the Courtauld Gallery.

Based in the part of Somerset House that was originally designed for the Royal Academy, which itself was founded 1768, it houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London that was founded in 1932.

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, Monet
It has a small, but renownedly fine collection and, for some reason or other, I’d never visited.

First up was the medieval room, which was devoid of any other human life when I entered, and fabulously quiet.

But just as a started gazing in wonder into a cabinet of remarkable carvings, the door was shoved open and in burst a group of Russian tourists, cameras and phones ready to snap anything and everything – and woe betide anyone who was in their way.

Bang went my chance of seeing anything properly, as I was shoved out of the way from two sides (there was at least one brief apology), by phone-toting visitors determined simply to snap, snap and snap again. They were not, I hasten to add, youngsters.

Adam and Eve, Cranach the Elder
I retired quickly to the first of the upstairs galleries, only to find them catch up with me almost instantly.

Again, the same pattern.

Having spent a few minutes looking at Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563), which I realised that I remembered from school, I approached Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve (1526), only for a group to surround it with no interest in anything other than having a picture taken beside it, making funny signs with hands near Adam’s groin.

Quickly on then, through the rooms with the Gainsbroughs and the Rubens, into the smaller, square Cézanne Room, where I plonked myself firmly on the square bench in the middle and stayed put to wait them out.

Art’s for everyone, and all that – and I’d love more people to see stuff like this and enjoy it, but what the hell is the point of visiting a gallery or museum and behaving like this?

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne
What do you get from it – and it had better be pretty damned special if you’re going to make such a negative impact on other visitors.

While doing that ‘waiting out’, I set myself to concentrate on the painter’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire from around 1887, sketching a very rough outline of it with a pen on the lined page of a notebook in an effort to better understand the composition. Which actually does work.

The gallery’s Cézanne collection alone is worth the (£6) admission, and covers a wide period in his productive life, up to a very late landscape, Route Tournante, from 1904, which looks unfinished as well as quite abstract, and also includes the wonderful Man with a Pipe from 1896.

Nevermore, Gauguin
Looking at these, I found it much easier to start to understand the difference between Impressionism and post-Impressionism: it starts to make sense.

There was no shortage of treats in just three rooms, including some Renoir and Degas, with Monet’s beautiful Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), plus Manet’s vivid explosion of colour, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) and the iconic A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-82) being stand outs, along with a sculpture by Rodin, van Gogh’s disturbing Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889) and the lovely Peach Trees in Blossom from the same year.

Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear, van Gogh
But for me, one of the most important ‘new’ experiences was seeing two of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings in the ‘flesh’. The colour palate really reminded me of Survage’s Collioure pictures, and they also have a sense of mystery about them that adds to the fascination.

I don’t know why – now – but I’d long assumed that they were quite exploitative, but when you see them, you also see the dignity of the women in them. I was wrong on that score, most defininately.

There’s also a realism combined with a decorative element that makes a particularly interesting contrast with The Haystacks, which the artist painted in Brittany in 1889, which has a palate that seems closer to van Gogh than what we perhaps most obviously think of Gauguin.

Upstairs, though, came an unexpected treat.

As I walked into a room of 20th century art and turned back to look what was hung on the left of the door, it was to see André Derain’s Fishermen at Collioure, painted in 1905, in that summer that, in effect, saw the beginning of Fauvism.

The Red Beach, Matisse
And on the other side of the same door, The Red Beach by Matisse, also from 1905, and quite recognisably of Port D’Avall.

After all the hunting for work in London by Matisse, finally here was not just ‘any old work’, but something that I could comprehend and appreciate on a specific and quite personal level.

I was thrilled almost to the point of tears – and telling innocent bystanders: Ive sat on that beach, I ave.

Other exhibits that made an impact also include some Kandinsky, some Kirchner and a room of Walter Sickert (a revelation) and Modigliani’s rather wonderful Female Nude Sitting from 1916.

Slowly I seem to ‘get’ modern art. Or actually, not so much slowly, but all in a relatively short burst, after having spent decades – including my time studying art formally at school – not doing so.

It’s really rather enjoyable.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Star struck as a London icon serves up a treat

Marlene watching over me
Once upon a time – and it feels a mightily long time ago – I did an awful lot of theatre reviewing.

I didn’t get paid for it, but I got tickets, which were a form of gold dust anyway. And I got to pen reviews that were published in the UK’s smallest national daily newspaper, The Morning Star, where I eked out a meagre daytime living as, first, an advertising salesperson and later, as a sub-editor, sports editor and duty chief sub-editor.

It paid lousily, but it was a proper, old-fashioned way of learning a trade – and there were always those theatre tickets.

On a couple of occasions, I was taken out to dinner after a show by the exceptionally charming and generous Clive Hirschhorn, the long-time film and theatre critic of the Sunday Express, to whom I’d been introduced by the Star’s then film critic, Jeff Sawtell.

Clive (and partner) took pity on a hackette with renownedly piss-poor pay and no expenses, and carted me (and Jeff) off after a show I cannot recall to eat at Joe Allen’s, just off The Strand.

Since this was in the days before I started to really enjoy culinary matters, I remember nothing about the food. But I do remember sitting at one of the circular tables in the centre of the basement restaurant, with Alan Rickman right behind me, almost back to back, and having the devil’s own job not to melt into a pile of goo just hearing that voice.

And at some point, Su Pollard announced her arrival with a Hi-di-Hi-like holler as she entered.

It was love at first celebrity sighting.

I went back with a friend on a few occasions, sitting in a corner and nursing a salad starter and a glass of wine because that was what I could afford, but relishing the atmosphere. I remember huge amounts of walnuts and cheese in vast bowls of leaves; the late-evening piano and face-spotting as actors came in after their own evening's work, and the red brick walls covered in Broadway posters.

And thus Joe Allen’s – a legendary place on a far wider scale; open since 1977 and under new ownership this year – became a legend for me.

But that was a long time ago and, despite my best intentions, I had never revisited and The Other Half, for all my waxing lyrical over it on more than one occasion, had never been at all.

On Friday, however, we were booked into the Vaudeville to see The Ladykillers. And since we needed to eat, I was contemplating dinner in the vicinity.

After musing over the possibility of going to Orso, a rather nice Italian restaurant in another basement nearby, it struck me that this was the perfect chance to try Joe’s again.

There’s always a danger, when you nurse fond memories of something, that revisiting will ultimately spell disappointment. And even more so when you’ve burbled on about it for years to someone else and they’re now going to experience it first hand.

And anyway, what would the food be like?

Crab cakes and apple slaw
I started with a cocktail – a mint julep, since we were, after all, in what is an American diner meets a brasserie, and since I had, only a day earlier, been listening to the late, great Robert Preston singing that it was the eponymous Mame who gave his own “old mint julep a kick”.

I am not usually a whisky person, but this mix of bourbon, mint, sugar and water was very pleasant and refreshing.

From the South, it was a step up to New England for crab cakes and an apple slaw, with fries and a portion of buttered spinach on the side.

Oh my, oh my. The crab cakes were pure crab, flecked with red chilli that cut delightfully through the rich sweetness of the meat.

The slaw, which was on a bed of endive, was bitter and fresh and light – and far more than the garnish I’d rather expected (hence the order of spinach). There was also a little light rose marie sauce on the side, while the fries and spinach were equally top notch.

What do you follow that with?

Well, it was back down south for a slice of pecan and cranberry pie, with a quenelle of whipped cream – cue Family Guy jokes about Stewie’s pronunciation of ‘whipped’ – with a little cinnamon powder on top.

Pecan and cranberry pie with whipped cream
Seriously rich and naturally sweet, like the fruitiest fruit cake ever, with cream that was light as a feather, it was a superb end to a superb meal.

The Other Half opted for a steak, followed by a chocolate brownie and ice cream.

Mind, we stayed on this side of The Pond with wine – a glass of red for him and white for me – both from the Languedoc.

Joe’s is not a traditional diner with gingham tablecloths and red banquettes, but a very classy venue with a very classy take on some classic American cooking.

Oh, and the decor is wonderful for any theatre buff – we were watched over by Marlene’s lidded gaze.

There may not have been any face spotting to be done in our part of the room and at that time of evening, but the atmosphere is comfortable, the food excellent and the service good.

Briefly, then, to The Ladykillers.

The Ealing comedy has been rewritten for the stage by Graham Linehan of Father Ted and Black Books fame, and has received raves.

It is a light evening’s entertainment, but it isn’t the film.

The Ladykillers
The cast were great – particular mentions for Angela Thorne, Simon Day, Ralf Little and Chris McCalphy as Mrs Wilberforce, Major Courtney, Harry Robinson and One-Round.

It’s not that John Gordon Sinclair was bad as Professor Marcus, but he never really hits the creepy notes that are essential.

It has a brief moment of very welcome and sinister darkness in the second act, but certainly in the first, could out-ham David Walliams’s death scene in the Grandage Company Dream.

The robbery and chase, though, is very inventive and the set in general is excellent.

So, that was that. It made me order a copy of the original film, feeling that I need to remind myself what a glory of British cinema it is.

But if the theatre didn’t live up to hopes – Joe Allen’s most certainly did. We will be back.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Forget foodbanks, we've got another porn panic

Grande Odalisque, Ingres. It's Art – okay?
The latest brouhaha about pornography broke out last week, as the Daily Mail set its hypocritical sights on WH Smith.

The unfortunate retailer’s crime? It found itself in the line of fire after an online cataloguing error meant that pornographic or erotic ebooks were spotted near titles for children.

The Mail, which doesn’t include the titillation of its audience as one method of making sales; which doesn’t include and comment on as many acres of female flesh as possible on its own website, and which doesn’t – oh no, sirree – use creepy language to sexualise underage girls in that very same part of cyberspace, has apparently read every one of the naughty ebooks that were available to buy and announced that the subjects include rape and incest and beastiality and, and … well, won’t somebody think of the children (but not the way Mail hacks do)!

Lawyer Myles Jackman has adroitly dismantled some of the Mail’s inaccuracies, showing how it misunderstands – or misinterprets – the law, for instance.

But unfortunately, the Mail was not alone.

First, it effectively admitted that it hadn’t bothered doing any actual investigation itself: “At least 60 pornographic ebooks – some featuring rapes and bestiality – were available on the company’s online store, and could also be found on Amazon, Waterstones and Barnes & Noble … according to the Mail on Sunday.” [my emphasis]

That’s cool: just rely on the always-reliable Mail family of newspapers to feed you the details of the story. After all, this isn’t the Mail that has a record of ‘exaggerating’ on such matters, is it?

It’s not the same Mail, is it, that published an article by one Amanda Platell, claiming that she had searched for and easily found images of child abuse online? It turned out that she had found no such thing and, if she had, she would have broken the law in attempting any such search.

But let’s move on. A few paragraphs later:

“The National Crime Agency warned on Sunday that books appearing to legitimise child abuse ‘might feed the fantasies of paedophiles and in some cases encourage child sexual abusers to commit contact offences’.”

Woah! Where’s the child abuse thing come from? Where is there even a suggestion that some of the ebooks – which are self-published, apparently – include anything “appearing to legitimise child abuse?

Of course, the mere mention of kiddy fiddlers is enough to send half the nation into a state that includes the shut-down of their reasoning skills.

Odalisque with Magnolias, Matisse. Not erotic. At all
As it happens, other sources say that some of the books do contain themes of abuse, but if that’s the case, let’s have it mentioned in the article, without the sudden jump to the subject of paedophilia, which simply looks like a conflation of child abuse and pornography/erotica.

But this is entirely in keeping with the sort of knee-jerkery that is increasingly coming to inform the debate on whatever someone or other decides constitutes porn.

After all, in what passes for that debate in the UK, claims of the untold harm to women and children caused by pornography dominate, without a shred of actual evidence for that. Yet it has become accepted unquestioningly by many that it is simply true.

Say something often enough …

And the Mail and the Guardian are among those publications that are culpable on this count. Which should tell you something.

Mind, since we also apparently live in a world where a convicted and time-served criminal can herself state that most women commit crimes because of men, perhaps certain people do need ‘protection’ from anything that might ‘deprave’ them?

Maybe the Victorians were correct in believing that only respectable men of a certain class (which class presumably ensured the aforementioned respectability) could be trusted to look at dodgy images?

After all, women are obviously so clearly weak, aren’t they?

Or when a woman is guilty of animal cruelty to her dogs, which also kill a child, it’s obviously the patriarchy behind it.

Or when a woman enters the home of an elderly person and sexually abuses her, that’s the fault of the patriarchy too.

Olympia, Manet. Entirely respectable pic of a prostitute
All of this – every little bit of it – plays to a censorious, reactionary agenda on women: one that is entirely happy to see womankind as vulnerable and as a perpetual victim, and to shoehorn womankind as a whole into a particular and limited template for ideological reasons.

At its extreme – its logical conclusion, one might say – is the likes of the Taliban.

Unfortunately, many people who would claim to be progressives buy into it and blithely aid the growth of a culture of victimisation, which demonises men and happily portrays women as eternal victims of ‘the patriarchy’.

And then, in response, we get the victimised white male routine.

This is all at a time when the populace as a whole is under attack from yet another government that readily does the bidding of the neo-liberal supra-national corporatocracy – and in this case, uses the result of the 2008 financial crash to batter the majority and set them against each other.

Against such a background, playing at divisive politics is not even intellectual masturbation, but far worse, it’s utterly counterproductive in terms of rallying and uniting people around the key issues, which have sod all to do with sex/gender and what turns people on, and everything to do with economics and actual politics.

And if anyone starts spouting off along the lines of: ‘if we only had more women in Parliament’, respond with two words: ‘Margaret’ and ‘Thatcher’.

The idea that somehow there’s some sort of unified feminine niceness out there that’ll solve everything is, at best, a misguided fantasy.

Even a cursory glance at history would suggest that, when women have power, they behave no better or differently to how men behave.

But that’s okay – because if we take on board the narrative of a certain type of feminism, then women don’t have to take personal responsibility because it’s all the fault of ‘the patriarchy’.

Which brings us back to the point where, if you continue to argue that, then you effectively argue that women are inherently weak – in which case, why, rationally, should they be considered equal within society?

The porn ‘debate’ is just one part of a wider war being waged by a number of protagonists with some slightly differing perspectives.

James as Odalisque, Niki Grangruth. Still Art
Other aspects of this war include, for instance, the male-dominated campaigns against abortion and the right of a woman to control her own body.

But if we believe that a woman should be able to have complete control of her own body, then it is inconsistent to patronise, condemn or exclude women who, for instance, work in the sex industry.

Do those who do that condemn the rent boy equally? Or what about the female ‘escort’ who provides services for other women?

The ‘debate’ is so up it’s own metaphorical arse that you will, even now, hear spectacular claims such as the famous one that ‘all porn damages women’. What? Even the gay stuff?

It’s also indicative of that divisionism: conflating all womankind to a single version. There is no female or feminist consensus on these subjects, no matter how much Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has apparently allowed himself to be told by the merry little band of misandrists that he continues to give space to.

You don’t have to like porn yourself to see this. That’s not point. But get caught up in the rhetoric, without understanding that, and you become just like the Daily Mail itself or the Guardian.

And dont forget: there is – as Ive mentioned before – theres also the small matter of class.

Ask yourself: would the campaign against page 3 exist if it wasnt in a working-class publication?

Leather Crotch, Robert Mapplethorpe. Not sex. Art
If you think so, why is there no comparable campaign against odalisque paintings that hang in open galleries? Perhaps because visiting galleries is considered a rather middle-class thing to do? And, when its in a gallery, its Art anyway, isn’t it?

If there are issues about how availability of pornographic materials is affecting young people, then perhaps the answer is proper education?

However, given the generally parlous state of sex education across the UK – not least because governments still cravenly kowtow to religious groups, schools and parents in allowing them to opt out of proper sex education – its easy to see why a spot of ranting stupidity appears to be the preferred solution for some.

The thing is, porns a nice, easy target, because few people will defend it, so bound up are we ideas of sex as still rather dirty – certainly if its lust and not lurve – and because the moment the ‘won’t somebody think of the children soundbite gets bandied around common sense is bundled out of the room.

Now just imagine if the Mail in particular brought as much concern to the news that the Red Cross is now handing our food aid in the UK.

As I said: a useful distraction – and not for the good of women or men as a whole.