Thursday, 15 August 2019

Monday in the park with Loki – or meet the raven

Loki and me – that grin is really not an everyday one
It was last year, reading Joe Shute’s A Shadow Above: the fall and rise of the raven, that I first came across Loki and Coda Falconry.

While I haven’t written much about it here, I have a thing about ravens – those huge, deeply intelligent birds, steeped in mythology, but also a source of fear across the globe.

The Norse god, Odin the Allfather, feared that there would be a day when his newsgathering corvids, Huginn (knowledge) and Muninn (memory), would not return.

In March 2016, after a trip to the Tower of London specifically to go raven spotting, I wrote that there was something poetic in the idea of a god that feared losing memory. While scholars have suggested that that originally refers to a fear of not returning from a shamanistic trance, for us, it can seem poignantly like the fear of dementia.

Little over a year later, after my mother had died suddenly, it started to become clear that Dad was suffering from more than ‘forgetfulness’, as his GP blithely insisted. The ravens had flown and the mists were descending rapidly.

As we slipped into the final autumn of his life and the hospital visits became more and more frequent, I would ritualistically greet the crows that hung around the hospital itself and in the open field opposite. The ancient belief in a link between death and the cawing corvids seemed alive, yet their presence was almost reassuring.

With Dizzy, a beautiful (if brainless) barn owl
I have seen ravens in the wild since that Tower visit: in Bavaria, circling the medieval towers of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the early spring sunshine, and kronking away from a rooftop opposite our hotel.

Last autumn, speeding past Thurrock on a train, I caught a glimpse of a pair. There had been countless crows in the fields as we passed. Then these two birds on their own, so obviously much bigger, yet (as much as I could ascertain in seconds), about as near to tracks as the crows had been.n

Later, a friend with a great deal of expertise in birding told me that, if I had such a strong gut response, then I was probably right. And as Shute’s book makes clear, ravens are making a comeback.

Loki is a rescue raven. When he arrived at Coda, he was clearly traumatised and deeply unhappy.

Yes, yes – that’s discussing a bird in terms of emotions. Not so long ago, to do as much would have been dismissed as the near heresy of anthropomorphism, but the science world is finally learning about non-human species in terms of emotion and intelligence. No longer are people who talk of their cats and dogs the only ones who contemplate such things – and while it brings it’s own challenges, it’s also a welcome end to a particular kind of species-based exceptionalism.

It took time and considerable dedication for falconer Elliot Manarin to gain his trust – and Elliot still bears the physical scars. But Loki is now very much a part of team Coda and you can arrange to meet him.

Star, a saker falcon, on my fist. How beautiful!
So, last December, The Other Half gave me a birthday present of vouchers to do precisely that – and to enjoy a half-day falconry experience beforehand.

We finally managed to get booked in a couple of months ago and on Monday, made our way up London’s Lee Valley to the falconry, which sits within the Lee Valley Park Farms. It’s a very pleasant walk from Cheshunt station to the site, across part of the Lee Valley Country Park (with lots of birds).

The OH was there to film and shoot. We were with a small group and were led by head falconer Emily Corless and falconer Paul Ryder, spending time first with Teo, a young (and very noisy) aplomado falcon, then Dizzy, an exquisitely beautiful barn owl who is Emily’s favourite (though obviously she doesn't really have any favourites).

In both cases, the group took turns to have the birds fly to their gloved fist to collect raw meat (this is not an experience for the squeamish).

Then Paul and Emily took us into nearby fields and woodland with Griff, a 14-year-old harris hawk.

Unusually, these hawks hunt in groups – and in a situation such as our walk, regard the humans with them as being that group. Griff flew straight from his box into a tree and then followed us as we walked on, with Paul setting food on fists to get him to come down, showing us a variety of his flying skills.

This got a little more complex at one point as the rain came on and Griff refused to come to the fist – until substantial food was available (a mouse).

Back at the falconry, we met Freya, a snowy owl, as she flew to us for food.

Feeding Loki cat biscuits
Then it was the turn of Star, a saker falcon. First, Emily used a lure (food on a rope, in essence) spinning it around to exercise the bird and give us the chance to admire her flying abilities. Then, giving a call of “ho!” she let the lure go. Star caught it in mid air and took it to the ground to eat.

In turn, in a “trade off” as it’s known in the falconry world, Star was then encouraged to fly to each of us in turn with more food.

A display for people visiting the farm park followed with Eclipse, a rare black barn owl, Rico, a three-year-old harris hawk, Storm, a peregrine/gyr/barbary falcon, and Otis, a tiny sunda scops owl.

Then we were given certificates and everyone left, bar the OH and me.

Now was the moment.

Outside, Paul opened Loki’s enclosure and he flew out to his little toy piano, where he hit the keys with his beak until receiving cat biscuits as a reward. He prefers the cat biscuits to the bits of chicken that I held in a gloved hand so that he’d fly up to me.

I’d been near to Merlina at the Tower, but having a raven on your fist – and then hopping around on your shoulders – is entirely another matter. They are seriously big birds – and magnificent too; iridescent blues and greens and purples visible in their feathers as a they move.

There were further toys – including one he had only seen once or twice before: but with bewildering speed, he knew how to open boxes, use leavers and remove pieces in order to get at biscuits.

The intelligence is clear. Having read about the toys, I had half wondered if it was a tad exploitive – as with a circus animal. But once you understand a corvid’s need for stimulation, it becomes clear that this is not remotely exploitation.

He is mischievous too. In the picnic area next door, Emily had parked herself in case he spotted food. It had rained, so surely there was little risk? But then a family arrived and one child pulled a cheese and ham sandwich out. Loki was there in seconds – no aggressive behaviour – with Emily having to dive in to usher him back.

Back in his enclosure, with me feeding him cat biscuits, he showed us how he stashes his food. He’ll store it as much as possible in his beak and then, when he thinks nobody is watching, bury it beneath the small stones on the floor. He does this outside too, but that can end up in infuriation when other corvids (magpies, crows) see – and dig up the food when he’s safely back in his pen.

We left for the walk back to Cheshunt and the train home. All the birds were magnificent, but as Paul and Emily noted, for birds of prey, the only thing that matters is food (and breeding, presumably): they don’t really have intelligence or emotions. Indeed, contrary to popular perception, owls are “stupid,” Emily told our small group early on.

As Paul noted during the public display later, when you can fly silently and have the hearing and sight they do, you don’t really need much in the brain department.

Loki is a bird of a different feather. And I will absolutely be visiting again. I am in love and in awe – and for me at least, this corvid affair has nothing to do with death, but very much the opposite.

• Find out more at, at Loki's own Facebook page – – and and as @CodaFalconry on Instagram too.

• Joe Shute's superb book about ravens is readily available. I highly recommend it – and you can follow him on Read an article he penned for the Telegraph about Loki here.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

A bona read!

Fabulosa! The Story of Britain's Secret Gay Language

Paul Baker

Reaktion Books

‘How bona to vada your dolly old eke!’ If you know what this means – or at least recognise something about the words – then a new publication from Reaktion Books might well be for you. If you don’t, then it still might be for you. 

But there is a proviso: Fabulosa! The Story of Britain's Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker will make some people uncomfortable. Polari, a slang that was used predominantly by theatre workers and camp gay men (mostly working class), was not for prudes.

The sentence that opens this post means ‘how nice to see your lovely old face.’ So nothing to worry anyone there.

But here’s another phrase I can remember without making an effort to learn: ‘Scharda there’s nada to vada in the larder’.

Literally, ‘a shame there’s nothing to see in then larder’. Euphemistically: ‘a shame he’s got a small penis’.

It’s a highly sexualised code and full of bitchy potential.

But then, as Baker explains, it was used by people who were outlaws within UK society – derided and persecuted on the basis of who they fancied/had sex with and how they presented. And Polari was not only an incredibly important way to communicate discretely, it also had a sense of in-your-face ‘fuck ’em’ in its bitchiness.

Baker, who has spent 25 years studying his subject, starts this book by carefully explaining the sort of technical stuff about what constitutes a language and, indeed, how Polari developed and from what roots. 

That’s fascinating enough – and it most certainly is – but in many ways, the book really gets into its stride when he starts to look deeper into why it developed: why, indeed, it was needed and what it gave to its users.

Polari has all but died out as a gay language since the end of the 1960s – partly because of decriminalisation (although Baker makes clear that that was far from the magic pill it can sound like now), but that that  also came at the end of its greatest prominence, when used as part of the Julian and Sandy sketches in the classic radio comedy, Round the Horne.

Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick were the eponymous pair: Baker interviewed co-writer Barry Took late in the latter’s life, and Took makes clear that the duo were the ones who knew Polari and fed that into the sketches. Took was apparently also rather shocked at some of the (possible) double, double meanings Williams in particular seems to have contributed, not least via ad-libbing.

But that actually emphasis how playful Polari was … how playful it IS.

One of the gay-friendly pubs in London, from the first half of the 20th century, that Baker mentions in the book – the Royal Oak on Columbia Road – was the first place I heard Polari: drinking with gay men who rattled off bits of Julian and Sandy as late as the 1990s.

I’ve long loved the camp bitchy thing – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert remains a favourite film, as does Victor/Victoria (even if the latter is not quite so camp bitchy). I don’t generally do personal ‘pride’ in much – but I do remain bloody chuffed with a couple of times I set the Oak crowd roaring with a comment.

Fabulosa! is an easy read – in places, very, very funny. But it is also a welcome social history that is a reminder of what gay men in the UK faced.

Very much recommended.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

A lion king of a film

I have upset my niece. Rather assuming she’d be amused more than anything, I texted her to say I’d just seen the new version of The Lion King, having not seen the original.

The response was cutting, if not meant to be as such: she was dismayed that I “haven’t seen the original, because it was the least twee Disney out out there and really worth watching.”


Memories of things we experience in childhood have very, very long roots.

As it happens, I understand fully what she means. Back in 2016, The Other Half and I ventured into a cinema to see the new Disney Jungle Book. The trailers looked fabulous, but I was torn. For me, Jungle Book, the 1967 cartoon, was incredibly important.

Goodness – as a child, it was the only film I saw at the cinema twice. Taken first by my parents and then by my beloved Auntie Doll.

I still have the souvenir brochure somewhere and the soundtrack album. I can sing almost every word of the songs, even at the advanced age of 56. In my memory – the cultural part of my personal history – that cartoon remains important.

But that doesn’t mean that the new version was not utterly superb.

I came out of cinema at the time really pleasantly surprised.

So, fast forward three years.

The original Lion King came out when I wasn’t going to the cinema and was part of a Disney era with which, for some reason I cannot recall, I have never engaged. Disney/Pixar is quite another matter, but that’s a different thing.

The Other Half and I booked tickets for this incarnation of The Lion King on the basis of the trailers: it looked superb.

It is.

The 2016 Jungle Book was stunning. This develops on the technical achievement of that. There were moments when I found myself almost crying at the sheer quality of what was on screen. You could be watching a documentary. All that’s missing is a David Attenborough voiceover.

Some reviews have suggested it has a lack of “heart”.

I can’t see it myself. Arguably, I went to watch it for the technical side, but ended up loving the story, the characters, the songs etc: engaged by the whole package.

We saw this less than a week after seeing Jon Favreau play Happy In Spider-Mad: Far From Home. He directed both that 2016 Jungle Book and this. A stunningly talented guy.

There’s a great voice cast here too. Keeping James Earl Jones as Mufasa lends such gravitas (note the joke of his telling his son about “your destiny”), while Donald Glover is excellent as the grown Simba (and a special note for JD McCary as the cub Simba). 

Seth Rogan as Pumbaa, John Oliver as Zazu and Billy Eichner as Timon are all equally excellent.

Beyoncé puts in a fine turn as Nala, while John Kani as Rafiki is … well, this is Kani, so what do you expect? These days, he’s the wise, elderly African go-to actor for Hollywood (and the OH assured me that he got to speak a bit of Xhosa at one point).

But in many ways, perhaps the star performance in voice terms is that of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar: so calmly and understatedly sinister.

What we do get here that I sense was not as obvious with the original is the idea, for instance, of Scar as grooming Simba; of the latter’s trauma and of the general environmental questions.

For me, this was superb. Some critics have suggested that the technical achievement comes at the cost of heart.

I can’t see that, personally. The OH and I were in a large audience – mostly adult and one that was presumably more familiar with the original than we were.

When Simba the cub is raised to the crowd in the opening scenes and when we see Pumbaa as a baby warthog, the cinema was filled by the sound of people going: ‘ahhhhh’.

There were hints of attempts at singalongs. At the end, there was widespread applause.

Put aside your doubts: this is very, very good.

It amuses me even more to think that Walt would be spinning in his grave over how utterly cool Disney has become in social terms.

PS #1: I would actually say that the best Disney live-action remake yet is Petes Dragon, because although I saw the original in the cinema with my family, it was really, really poor. And the remake is really, really good.

PS #2: my review of the 2016 Jungle Book is here.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Haring exhibition shows what 'pop art' can be

Untitled (Apartheid) 1984
It’s not uncommon to visit an exhibition and find something that you didn’t expect. More rarely, though, is visiting an exhibition that goes way beyond the unexpected and offers something revelatory.

The Keith Haring exhibition, which opened last month at Tate Liverpool, is in the latter category.

Knowing I would be in Liverpool for a week for work, I’d done my usual and checked what was on art wise in the city.

There was an exhibition of Charles Rennie MacIntosh at the Walker (on until 26 August), but it’s a push to get the time, during a particularly intense working week, to get that ‘far’ from the conference centre.

Mickey Mouse eyes
However, the Haring exhibition was scheduled to have just opened at the Tate, which is only a short walk away from where I would be working, so it was a simple matter of remembering to pack my Tate membership card.

I was familiar with Haring’s simple figures – pop art’s answer to Lowry’s stick figures. In the 1980s, you couldn’t miss them – they were ubiquitous.

But context can make all the difference.

Here, we see works from the very beginning of Haring’s all-too-short career: the early Mickey Mouse cartoon eyes and examples of the drawings that Haring, with a deep belief in art being for everyone, executed on paper stuck up in New York Metro stations.

On a personal note – God, I remember drawing those eyes myself. Since, I’ve remembered how I drew and then drew again Mickey Mouse and more off the Disney icons.

But setting such personal memories aside, these are interesting enough and show his style evolving, but what really starts to resonate is later works.

Silence = Death
Haring rarely titled his works, so the only guideline to what he wanted to say is mostly on the surface he worked on – and his ‘canvases’ ranged from the yellow hood of a New York taxi to squares of tarpaulin.

While I knew that Haring had died of AIDS-related causes – and had, late in his life, campaigned around HIV/AIDS – I had not been aware that his political awareness had begun far earlier and went far beyond that.

Perhaps the best example of the HIV/AIDS works is 1989’s Silence = Death, a moving combination of the pink triangle and the idea of ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’.

But in terms of wider political awareness, there are works here that specifically speak out against apartheid in South Africa, while others examine the links between money and war.

An A5 page of my studies from The Matrix
Even more fascinating – and complex – are Haring’s works exploring new technologies. Intrigued by the possibilities offered by growing computerisation, the artist was also aware that there could be downsides.

It’s been suggested that Haring’s line can be compared to Picasso’s, but in its effortless, it reminds me more of Matisse – and indeed, many of the later works have a decorative quality, created out of densely-packed glyphs, that is pure Matisse too.

And as glyphs, they also have a sense of continuing a form of human expression that is millennia old.

The vast (and unusually titled) The Matrix, from 1983, seems at first almost abstract: it needs attention to understand anything it, so densely is it packed with ideas.

A day after my visit I returned in a lunch break, complete with sketchbook and pens. Trying to replicate some of the figures is a great way to more fully appreciate the sureness of Haring’s line.

Untitled, 1983
But back to the complexity of technology. Could aliens save us – or slaughter us? Will technology enslave us? Will we end up fucking computers or being fucked by them?

Things here are not necessarily as obvious as they seem. The last works displayed are Boschian in their nightmare view.

Equally interesting are works such as No Sin ... run off on printers, yet interestingly designed and with an eye to mass communication of an idea. 

This is the first exhibition of Haring’s work in the UK.

It’s a revelatory experience: work that built upon pop culture and pop art – Haring might have been the successor to Warhol and Lichtenstein, but he was far more grounded in the community in which he lived and worked, and in political struggle, while he also believed in art for all.

Untitled, 1984 –  no doubt a Boschian hell, though
While I have seen little Warhol and only a small Lichtenstein exhibition (ironically, at Tate Liverpool a year or so ago), I would suggest that Haring was streets above both of them.

In his work, there are what now seem prophetic questions about the nature of technology.

While the last stage of his career was bound up with his own struggle with HIV/AIDS, there is no self-pity and no mawkishness anywhere, but a boisterous sense of joy that is present in every line he executed.

In his work, Haring often dealt with death and the means – or potential means of it. Yet ultimately, this is a life-affirming journey: his work bows to nobody and no god. It is out, it is not ashamed and it is most avowedly concerned with equality for all

It is on until November and is well worth a visit.

Keith Haring is on at Tate Liverpool until 10 November. Find out more here.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Walks of witness, steps free of shame

Placard protesting against the homophobic laws of the
Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who, in true
Freudian style, has ‘anal’ as part of his name
Last Friday was Whit Friday – a day that means little throughout most of the UK but which, in parts of the North West of England, has great cultural significance.

In the morning, members of local Christian churches march through their town in a walk of witness, usually with banners for each church (think a religious version of trade union banners) and sometimes with a brass band from, say, a local school.

In the afternoon – in Mossley at least – there’d be games at the local football ground. In the evening, there’d be the band contests, where brass bands would travel from town to town, à la Brassed Off, competing in each contest before travelling to the next one.

For eight years, when my family lived in the Tameside region, I would have the day off school. I’d march with my father’s church, enjoy the games and then hang around outside the church itself while the bands marched in and out of St Joseph’s school yard to perform.

Eight years was the longest we spent anywhere when I was growing up: the sound of brass bands is woven into my being.

Yours Truly
My last Whit walk was 40 years years ago on Friday 8 June, 1979.

This year, on 6 June, I took part in what was, in many ways, another walk of witness and my first such one: London Pride.

I’d thought about going to Pride before – only as a member of the crowd, mind – but then somehow just never got around to it.

With the benefit of hindsight, I think that I was afraid of being outed to the only two people I was in contact with whom I wasn’t out – my parents. My father had, back in those Mossley days, carefully nurtured an awareness in me that people who knew him would see me doing things and report.

Trafalgar Square
It happened at least once that I can specifically remember now, about something ridiculously innocuous, but it was an idea that lingered. I don’t think that such things leave you easily, even if you cease to be consciously aware of them.

I never told Mother and Dad that I was bisexual: by the time I’d come out to myself, I wondered what the point would be: wouldn’t it just risk seriously upsetting them, given their attitudes toward sexuality – and sin?

A few days before this year’s Pride, a work email newsletter arrived in my inbox, announcing that there were spare places with our organisation’s contingent for the parade itself. I took the opportunity. It seemed an apt moment too, as I work through some of the things that have risen to the surface in the tumult of dealing with both parents’ deaths since 2017, plus my own cancer diagnosis last year.

The day of Pride, I got to Portland Place in good time, but realising that, in olive linen trousers, walking shoes and a branded UNISON t-shirt, I was woefully underdressed. So I picked up a little rainbow clip-on bow tie. I was still underdressed, but not quite as much so.

Steampunky Gothy greetings
The atmosphere was almost overwhelming. As an old friend noted to me later on Facebook, you feel surrounded by warmth and good feelings. I have never experienced anything like it. It was extraordinary to have people reach out from the massive crowd (an estimated 1.5 million on the streets of London) to high five as they wished you the best.

There was plenty of outré behaviour and attire – and I like that: I adore the transgressive nature of drag, for instance.

And off course, it was less than a week into my One Million Steps Challenge, so perfectly suited.

Perfectly suited too, for being not simply a utilitarian walk.

Some ask why Pride is needed these days. Well, when you hear and read of rising homophobic and transphobic attacks, you realise why.

When you read of the protests against the No Outsiders programme being taught in Birmingham schools, you understand why Pride is necessary.

Indeed, just today, it’s been reported that the government has been accused of being “too slow” to tackle the issue – and support the school: accused by the woman tasked with tackling extremism.

‘God is love’
But now, it seems that the protests by some Muslim parents, on the grounds of their religious beliefs, against teaching children that all people are equal, are encouraging others.

According to this report, a group called Catholic Family Voice has been set up near Glasgow by a woman who describes herself as “excited” by what’s been happening in Birmingham. Another woman has been individually leafleting schools on the issue, aiming to disrupt, essentially, while the founder of The Values Foundation makes it clear that she doesn’t ‘value’ equality.

There’s no way that people of faith will teach it’s OK to be gay,” she said. “They won’t because the Bible tells us it isn’t OK to be gay.”

Yes. And the Bible tells us that we should do an awful lot of things that these people would not remotely suggest were appropriate these days.

It’s also worth noting at this juncture, that plenty of people of faith have no problem with the spectrum of sexuality, just as plenty of people of faith acknowledge that evolution is real.

But that’s as maybe. The point here is simple: it might seem that LGBT+ people have equality – in law, at least. But while they continue to be attacked, simply for being who they are and loving who they love, then the struggle is far from over.

I‘ll go with this
In many ways, in terms of a practical, day-to-day level, it’s not been particularly difficult for me: despite being out to people in my daily life, I’ve been in a relationship with a straight, male Other Half for 30 years (he knew before I recognised it myself), so people comfortably make assumptions and frankly, I’ve no interest in making my sexuality the subject of every first conversation with someone.

But almost four decades to the day since I last took a walk of witness – and now, not because I had no choice, but because I wanted to – I walked again.

In times like these, with the rise of the far-right revealing again the attitudes that gave rise to the pink triangle – the symbol stitched onto the concentration camp uniforms of LGBT+ inmates in Nazi Germany – witness is vital.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, with all that began. Our history is important.

So too is showing solidarity with those still being persecuted and even being killed: four LGBT refugees from Syria had finally arrived in the UK a couple of days before Pride. Finally, they could experience what it means to be out.

And it is also vital to say, as MP Angela Eagle recently did in a speech about the Birmingham schools protests: “We aren’t getting back in the closet”.