Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sagittarians Rejoice...

David Archer has heard the voice of his dead father Phil and is now resolved not to sell Brookfield Farm for more than £7 million to a developer. Archers fans, even the fed up ones, rejoice.

The breakfast tables of Britain must have been awash with dropped tears of joy and relief today. We were doing the breakfast and caught the last 20 minutes of the omnibus edition and heard David evidently delivering a calf and ruminating aloud to himself that this was the last one that would ever be born at Brookfield to the Archer family.

The voice of his father came back to him, Phil Archer saying how much he regretted some of the decisions he had made. He was committing the future of Brookfield to the care of David and his wife Ruth. That's when David, quite understandably, broke up. It was a great moment.

More was to follow when he rushed off to tell his mum, Jill, the mother of the nation. The thought of her leaving Ambridge and Brookfield has been too much to contemplate these last few months. Wily old Jill, whose life has always been outward - unlike self-pitying Peggy - understood perfectly the sub-text of her troubled son's distress. Deep down she always he knew he wouldn't, couldn't, tear himself away from his beloved farm.

The likely ructions when his family relations find out that he's changed his mind can only be imagined. Most of them are looking forward to profitably cashing in their shares in Brookfield and setting themselves up for life. Ruth Archer's strategy has been to get David to move to the North East so that she can be nearer her ailing mother Heather. That little problem is easily resolved, of course: the producers can kill off Heather, perhaps Ruth and Peggy Archer while they're at it.

In a disastrously changing world, David Archer's 11th hour change of heart may be of no significance; nevertheless it's good to hear somebody stand up for traditions rooted in the emotions of the heart. David Archer's a man of cattle not the quick buck.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Fifty Shades of Graham Greene...

According to the company Illicit Encounters, 438 of 500 of its surveyed members who have read E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, or who have seen Sam Taylor Wood’s film adaptation, have had an affair because their sex lives were boring compared to the erotic S and M goings on of literature student Anastasia Steele and multimillionaire businessman Christian Grey.

For the past 12 years Illicit Encounters has been “providing a meeting place for like-minded married and attached people” who fancy a bit of strange they haven’t got with their regular partners.


Of the gallant 500, 309 said “they invested in handcuffs, ropes, leather or whips...” The information inspired Bradford "hardware store" Uriah Woodhead to take out a full-page newspaper advertisement showing in black and white a partially masked woman’s face. Her lips are coloured, red. “...naughty but nice,” goes the logo.“ We’ve got it all tied up with Fifty Shades of Grey goodie bags for your indulgence!” Well, beat my botty with a bit of two b' four.

Shades of Barry Bucknell, the man who popularised Do It Yourself on national television for three or four decades. Bedrooms littered with bits of leather, rope and other odds and sods? Oh well, if the sexy sadism isn't up to much you can always enjoy yourself with a spot of handicraft, home improvements.

“S and M can be so thrilling and exciting. I’m glad 50 Shades has made it more mainstream, even if it’s just something mild like blindfolding or handcuffing!”  says Claire Page, spokesperson for IllicitEncounters.com.  Right. If ever I meet somebody who’s been on the wrong end of sex trafficking in Rotherham, Oxford or Keighley, I’ll be sure to ask them to describe the thrill of being blindfolded, handcuffed and violated.

In James’ bit of escapist wishful thinking, the exotic literature student Anastasia – she wouldn’t be a trainee nurse from Kuala Lumpar, would she – describes the experience of being hit between her legs with a whip by Christian Grey – he wouldn’t be a zero hours contract waiter from Wolverhampton, would he - On his second circuit, he suddenly flicks the crop, and it hits me underneath my behind...against my sex...The shock runs through me, and it’s the sweetest, strangest, hedonistic feeling...My body convulses at the sweet, stinging bite.

All the lasses are like that In Wallsend. I can report that once, accidentally, my progenitalior got caught in my trouser zip. The effect that convulsed me was far from sweet, strange or hedonistic. Rather than repeat the performance for pleasure, I resolved to be more careful in future. If I remember rightly, that was round about the time that Erica Jong’s novel, Fear of Flying, caused a sensation, principally because of her notion of the “zipless fuck” –an experience to be enjoyed between strangers on a train or a plane. 

The era of free love gave rise to a good deal of imaginative letter-writing in the glossy pages of magazines such as Playboy. The things people got up to in the toilets on the 8.45am to Chuffing Sodbury. 

Glossy porn, which is what this stuff was, made uninitiated DIY practitioners feel inadequate. If you weren’t regularly having ecstatic encounters with women who looked like Folies Begere dancers you couldn’t properly call yourself a man. What Katie did naturally and what Katie would be willing to do if worked on persuasively were not the moral considerations they are in our age of date rape, grooming and sex trafficking.

Ted Bundy, the young and handsome American serial killer, gave an interview on death row in which he said that he started out at 13 by getting excited by S and M magazine pornography he found on a dump. The more graphic and violent the images the better he liked it. From that he graduated to raping, torturing and killing at least 28 young women and girls. Evidently he found S and M “thrilling and exciting.”

So did the Marquis de Sade. He wrote 120 Days of Sodom on a long scroll of paper while in the Bastille in 1785. In this he laid bare, or attempted to, scores of deviant practices ranging from anal rape to ritualistic murder. I don’t know whether he was attempting, metaphorically, to expose the iniquities of pre-Revolution French society or sexorcise his own demons. 

I’ve never read the roll, nor have I seen the two films based on it, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930) or Pier Paulo Pasionlini’s Salo (1975). Let’s not forget that Fifty Shades of Grey was preceded by these films and others such as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974). How Dirk Bogarde must have enjoyed contradicting his image as an innocent buffoon in all those Doctor in the House film comedies of the 1950s.

Had Joe Orton outlived his relationship with Kenneth Halliwell he might have revised his notion that the only pleasure to be got from life involved polishing his genitalia. Having lived for nearly twice as long as the Oscar Wilde of Leicester I can say that other imperatives take precedence, such as caring for the unwell or unhappy, looking after your wife/partner and family, loving life if you can, and making sure you’ve got enough money to get by. Orton never lived through a recession: I’ve lived through three of them and, indirectly, lost a lot of money. Nothing like a bit of hardship for cooling the blood. When you’re down and out in Bradford, London, Paris, or on the back roads of Syria, hedonism's the last thing coursing through your veins.

Christian squirts baby oil into his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness - from makeover remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid?  But for the use of the word ass - a West Coast Americanism - I might have thought this a spoof by Alan Bennett or Sally Wainwright in an episode of Last Tango in Halifax.

I'm boring. I don't like surprises - surprises are akin to nasty practical jokes which other people always find funny. I would prefer to shop at M and S than indulge in a bout of S and M with some female trussed up in ship's rigging of stockings and suspenders - like an extra-Parliamentary Black Rod. My love's manners in bed/ are not to be discussed by me,/ as mine by her/ I would not credit comment upon gracefully, says Robert Creeley in his poem The Way. That's my kind of dog.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

War and Peace

More than 45 years ago, on Tuesday, December 30, 1969, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of 20 hour-long episodes of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Edited by Michael Bakewell and directed by Ronald Mason from the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, doubtless with sound effects from the innovative BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this audio epic would have kept me indoors for most if not all of those 20 Tuesday evenings after The Archers, from 7pm to 8pm.

My poor old mum would have had no say in the matter. The cast included great radio actors such as David Buck as Count Pierre Bezukov, Martin Jarvis as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Stephen Murray as his stern father the old Prince Bolkonsky, Denys Hawthorne as Tolstoy, Sean Barrett as Fedya Dolokhov, Kate Binchy as Natasha Rostov, Anna Cropper as Prince Andrei's ill-fated wife Lise and Patricia Gallimore as Sonya.

Those 20 hours dramatised the novel with Tolstoy as the narrator. Broadcasts like that were electrifying then. Napoleon figured prominently, of course, which would have been meat and drink to me aged 20. At the tail end of 1969 I saw only the historic man of destiny, moving armies across Europe and winning battles as though they were European Cup Finals. I got hold of Emil Ludwig's dramatised chronicle - "more readable than reliable," according to one critic - unable to believe my luck. Had I seen Abel Gance's movie Napoleon I'm sure I would have convinced myself that it was a piece of cinema verite. My imagination pictured things in cinemascope in those days. Of all the actors probably the one whose voice I can still hear in character is Stephen Murray's irascible Bolkonsky, hiding his feelings by storming off to some obscure part of his Bald Hills estate to resume shoe-mending or carpentry.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation of War and Peace for Radio 4 on New Year's Day has the credit of attempting something different. The ten-hour dramatisation doesn't have a scene-setting story-teller; instead, members of the Rostov family and their friends, including Pierre Bezukov and Lieutenant Colonel Denisov, recount their experiences of the wars against the French to their children: these experiences are then dramatised. The only thing wrong with this is that you know right from the start who survives. I also missed Prince Andrei's vision of the eternity on the bloody battlefield at Austerlitz. It was recounted rather than dramatised as I remember it being 45 years ago. This adaptation has a lot of telling.

Again, the voice that made the most impact belonged to the old Prince Bolkonsky, this time played by John Hurt. Tolstoy's philosophical historicism is explained by Pierre the erstwhile defender of Napoleon, who attempts to assassinate him. Tolstoy had a short way with the great men of history idea, declaring that the Battle of Borodino, outside Moscow, would have happened irrespective of the wishes of either Bonaparte or Tsar Alexander I. Great men are the pawns of history not its prime movers. The whole point of War and Peace is the futility of this delusion. I think Tolstoy should have dramatised this view, put it in the mouth of a character, the way he puts worldly scepticism in the mouth of Levin in Anna Karenina. Having Tolstoy banging on about it gets tiresome, as tiresome as Henry Fielding's prefaces in Tom Jones.

Tolstoy believed people were naturally good and required only freedom to realise their goodness. History, he thought, was the story of the fall from paradise. Interestingly, William Blake had a similar view about the story of Eden, the fall from eternity into historical time. Tolstoy maintained that truth is eternal, not conditional upon culture or events. The Bible, the Illiad, folk tales and folk songs, spring forth from ordinary people and are intelligible to all everywhere, as are fables.    

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Selma...

The murder of Martin Luther King Junior on April 4, 1968, does not figure in Ava Duvernay's fine film Selma. A couple of blogs I read beforehand nearly put me off going. But one of them made an interesting connection with Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln. I admired this account of Lincoln's fight to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress, though I disliked John Williams's overly intrusive, emotionally lush score.

Having seen the film I think that connection is right. Selma focuses almost entirely on the battle in 1965 to persuade President Johnson to force a Bill through Congress prohibiting states from legally blocking negroes from registering to vote. In the film that battle is won on the road from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, as the nation watches on television demonstrators being gassed, bludgeoned, bullwhipped and shot by Sherrif Jim Clark's helmeted policemen. And all the while J Edgar Hoover's FBI keeps a close watch on the Civil Rights main men. Teletype reports clatter across the bottom of the screen as an angry Lyndon Johnson tries to delay a confrontation with Congress. 

What touched me most deeply was not the bloodshed, the snarling bullying. Having watched all 14 episodes of the television documentary Eyes on the Prize I knew what had happened to those impossibly brave Freedom Riders, the lunch counter protestors and southern state marchers. Before going to the cinema I wondered why anybody needed to see Selma if they had seen Eyes on the Prize. It was the dramatisation of the conflict within the Civil Rights movement about tactics and the deeply brooding self-doubts of Dr King, surrounded by the "fog of death", that affected me more.

One of the conflicts involved the reformed Black Muslim Malcolm X. In the film he arrives in Selma to address a church meeting and there's a confrontation between him and Coretta King. In the past Malcolm X had denigrated the supposed passivity of King's non-violence, likening King to an Uncle Tom, willing to appease oppressors. Malcolm X underwent a transformation from advocating an eye for a eye. This wasn't shown in the film because, I suppose, it was a side issue. But the murder of Malcolm X, three weeks after making that speech, was referred to.

The concentration on the matter at hand from both the director and Paul Webb, the screenwriter, kept the tension of the drama intact. But there would have been no dramatic tension without the central performances of David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Carmen Ojogo as Correta King and the actors who played Civil Rights activists Ralph Abernathy, James Orange and especially Andrew Young. David Oyelowo rose to the occasion without overly emotionalising the role. He showed King rising above himself in spite of the doubts, the fear, the terror. Emotional turmoil and anguish were sometimes registered with a deeply melancholy inhalation of breath. King knew he was there to be hated and shot at. What was more terrible to him was that others were being hated and shot in his name.

In both Lincoln and Selma legislative objectives are triumphantly attained. In Spielberg's film the President is assassinated. Duvernay resists the temptation of ending her film with King's murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I think she made the right judgement. This is not a film about victims and villains: it is a film about injustice in which both black and white people of conscience and good will are battered and murdered. King's final speech, in front of the state house in Montgomery, brought to my mind one of Bob Dylan's evocative Civil Rights songs, Only a Pawn in Their Game, which starts off with the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers - for which none of the white suspects was ever convicted - and goes on to include the poor white trash who are encouraged to invest in their fear and hatred.




Saturday, 24 January 2015

That's How Winning is Done

Manchester City getting booted out of the FA Cup at home by Middlesbrough...Manchester United nearly getting booted out by Cambridge United...Premiership table-toppers Chelsea getting booted out 2-4 at home to Division One Bradford City after being 2-0 up...half the Premier League out of the competition already. All this and side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Who really gives a fuck about party political debates on television?

City's unlikely victory, voted the biggest ever FA Cup upset by Match of the Day watchers, comes in the 30th year of the fire disaster at Valley Parade in which 56 people were killed, an event that was as unlikely and ridiculous as City burning down Chelsea yesterday. Since then, for those who don't know or don't care, City's fortunes have mirrored the fluctuating fortunes of the nation. The fall from the Premiership 14 seasons ago was followed by relegation and two or three spells in financial administration. It's been a hand-to-mouth existence. If there was a food bank for football clubs, City would have been queuing for grub.

In 2013 the club, then in Division Two, shocked the footballing world by rolling over Premiership clubs Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to reach the Capital Cup Final at Wembley where they were torn apart by Swansea. That defeat didn't knock the stuffing out of them. They returned to the stadium that same season to comfortably conquer Northampton Town in the Division Two play-off final. Since then the new team's league form has fluctuated between the abysmal and the admirable.

City's struggle to survive and improve reminds me of Rocky Balboa's speech in the movie Rockie V, when the ageing boxer responds to his angry son with a bit of reluctant truth-telling - one of the highlights of a pretty good film:-

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winnin' is done...Until you start believin' in yourself you ain't gonna have a life.

Doesn't matter if City get knocked out in the next round, the fifth round; they've already gone beyond their own expectations and made a little bit of footballing history, reaffirming the validity of their two uplifting Wembley appearances in 2013.

Monday, 19 January 2015

There's No Business Like...

The Home Secretary says anti-semitism must be wiped out. I wonder at the unthinking use of a phrase with genocidal overtones. But then, being a bear of staggeringly little brain, me wondering at things is not an uncommon phenomenon.

I was wondering, for example, at the swiftness with which "Je suis Charlie" in Paris the week before last became, on Sunday in London, "Je suis juif". 

In Sylvia Plath's poem Daddy, the narrator imagines she might be "a bit of a Jew". And in Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar, about the Nazi massacre of Jews, written when the poet was in his twenties, he concludes with what he hopes is a resounding blow: No Jewish blood runs among my blood/ but I am as bitterly and hardly hated/ by every anti-semite/ as if I were a Jew. By this/ I am a Russian.

The hardly is clearly a bit of duff translation; but the sense of the lines is not fatally impaired. Yevtushenko was aiming his fist at anti-semitism in Russia, which has a history of Jew hatred going back to the pogroms of the 19th century and probably beyond. Incidentally without those pogroms, Bob Dylan's antecendents would not have fled Europe for America and we would never have had timeless wonders such as It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), Talkin' World War III Blues, and Desolation Row. It's an ill wind.

I shared a basement flat in Hackney with a chap who was Jewish when I was 22. At his behest I explored the possibility of going to Israel to work on a Kibbutz for a while. That was in the early Seventies, after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 but before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I think I would have been too callow, too shallow, for those unblinking warriors at that time. Over the years I confined my sympathy for Israel to watching the usual movies: Exodus, Raid on Entebbe, Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List.

Not any more, not after the Israeli military's attempt last year to do to Gaza City what the Nazis had done to Warsaw. Jews were culprits then. Now, it appears, they are in their usual historical role of victims once again. And I am wondering at the transformation.

The sight of Home Secretary Teresa May and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles - our Eric, as he was when he was leader of Bradford Council between 1988-90 - sombrely standing behind "Je suis juif" placards, caused me to remember a cynical observation attributed to former Israel Foreign Minister Ebba Eban: "There's no business like Shoah business."

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie?

I agree with the bloggist Your Freedom and Ours: the killings at the office of Charlier Hebdo on January 7 were not "senseless". Like the hacking up of soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of London in May 2013 and the murder of 52 people on the tubes and buses of London in July 2005, the killings in Paris were rational acts calculated to shock and terrify.

But to what hoped for end? None of the attacks, none of the murders, carried out against writers, cartoonists or film-makers since the ceremonial immolation of The Satanic Verses by Muslim men in Bradford in February 1989, appears to have deterred the spirit of satire. Provincial publications may have become more timorous in criticising Islamofascism with its penchant for honour killings, human trafficking, drug-running, sexual grooming and the occasional burst of terrorism, but bolder spirits in the free capitals of the world have not.

No, the well-armed, protectively clothed and shod trio who killed and wounded more than 20 people with their automatic assault rifles, probably had another objective. At a guess I'd say they were hoping to provoke a backlash against French Muslims to demonstrate that it is the West that's at war with Islam and that it always has been.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and before that the Crusades...Pick whatever age you like and it will kill. For the French this goes back to the Algerian war of independence followed by the internicene war with the OAS and the dozen or more attempts to assassinate President de Gaulle. And that pre-dates the Munich Olympic Games massacre of 1972 when Black September Palestinians kidnapped Israeli athletes to use them as bargaining chips for the release of jailed Palestinians. It all went wrong and 11 Israelies were killed.

You could argue the conflict with Islam back to the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel defeated Egypt and Jordan and occupied the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai Desert - the latter territory subsequently handed back to Egypt after President Sadat and Menachem Begin allowed President Jimmy Carter to broker a peace deal at Camp David. Why stop there? Why not go back 20 years before Moshe Dayan and his Horatio Nelson heroics on land and in the air, back to 1948 when Israel was created? Come to that, why not go back to the source of the trouble, when Moses led the bickering tribes of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land?

Depending on how fundamental you want to get about this, you could even go back to Genesis and Adam and Eve, taking the 'doomed before the beginning of time' line that Samuel Beckett's character Hamm uses against the hapless Clov in Endgame.  

You don't need history to understand that if you provoke somebody enough one day they are going to hit back in a way you didn't expect. Things get trickier when vengeance is sought retrospectively,  as was the case in Northern Ireland when the war boiled over. What's going on now is not a war against free speech as such but, as we saw in London in 2005 and in the United States four years before that, a war against the West for wrongs, real and imagined, done in the past. For the armed and militant wing of Islam, the jihadis, this is pay back time. If I am exaggerating perhaps somebody will explain why this country has been in a state of high security alert for months?

But for the hundreds out there dedicated to killing us, there are thousands who don't feel like that. We have to remember this. The closer you are to events the worse the worse they appear. Take the book burning in Bradford in 1989. At the time it seemed like a threat to set fire to the whole civilised world of cultural discourse. The reality was somewhat different. The would-be fire-lighters happily agreed to bring forward the moment of ignition to accomodate the photographer from the local paper sent to cover the event because he had to be away somewhere else on another job at the time they had orginally designated for The Satanic Verses to go up in smoke.

If the Islamic Republic of Iran had come out of the eight-year war with Iraq better than it did the ageing and unwell Ayatollah Khomeini would have had no need to issue a fatwah against poor old Salman Rushdie, to rally Muslims worldwide. It was a ploy to stir up opinion, to stick a finger in the eye of the West for the support given to Saddam Hussein, whom the West would later seek and destroy. The ploy worked, radicalising a generation of Muslims in Bradford in the same way that I remember the Black Power of black Muslims in the United States radicalising black teenagers in my corner of East London in the early 1970s.

Rather than go into panic mode the French should treat the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a criminal act and send the police after the criminals. It won't satisfy the lust for vengeance in some quarters; but that's a desire best resisted. Attacking Muslim shops, schools or places of worship, apart from being wrong, would play into the hands of the men with the agenda, the provocateurs who want division, chaos and bloodshed. I'm not talking about Muslims who are seriously pissed off with recent Western military adventures; I'm thinking of the ideological strategists in the shadows who use the disaffected as pawns in a much bigger game. Bob Dylan wrote a great song on this theme in the early 1960s: Only a Pawn in Their Game.

Rather than make a bravura gesture (from a safe distance) and declare in solidarity with the silent demonstrators in Paris, "Je suis Charlie", I would prefer to say instead "I am Jimmy".