Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Song of Summer

So farewell, then, Ken Russell.

It's hard to think of him as possessing the physique of a ballet dancer, but dancer he was before training as a photographer and then becoming probably the most original film director in British cinematographic history. I heard one critic on the radio yesterday describe his 1969 adaptation of the D.H.Lawrence novel 'Women in Love' as being 'better than the book' and - at his best - that was what Ken Russell did. He took a subject and made more of it than could ever have been conceived by anyone else, sometimes even the subject.

He was a one-off, a flawed genius but a genius nevertheless. He wallowed in self-indulgent nonsense rather more than many thought strictly necessary, but he's forgiven - all is forgiven - for the flashes of utter beauty, the moments of genius, the sequences that no-one else but Ken Russell could possibly have directed. And I'm not talking naked male wrestling. Personally, my own favourites are the old 'Monitor' films - not so much the Elgar biopic everyone always talks about but the fully acted 'Song of Summer' about the final years of the composer Delius.

I suppose I feel a very tenuous personal connection, having lived not-so-far from Scarborough, the home town of Deluis's amanuensis Eric Fenby, on whose memoir 'Song of Summer's is based. I also came very close to writing Fenby's biography, having contacted him when he was working at the Royal College of Music in London and begun working on the project with him. A subsequent offer from a publisher for his autobiography put paid to that scheme, unfortunately - the more so as I'm not sure whether the autobiography was ever completed.

Here's Fenby, played by Christopher Gable (who really was a ballet dancer) in the final section of the film, when Fenby returns home to Scarborough after completing his work in France with Delius.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Britain in a Day

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Archers

You've got to love an everyday story of country folk. Well, you had to love it back in the day when it was still an everyday story of country folk. I gave up listening shortly after this little episode, a classic of comedy writing featuring strong, three-dimensional characters. (Ok, in the case of the Gabriels - pere et fils - there's sometimes a danger of caricature but it's never less-than-entertaining.

Not quite sure why I preserved this little sequence. It dates from the time I had to tape the programme as I was either attending lectures or contributing to the Students Union takings in the bar. I've been trawling through my old cassettes just recently. And I'm glad I have. This is a real gem:

The Archers: Sgt Barry talks to the over-60s by dotterel

Thursday, 22 September 2011

On this day...

...September 22nd, 1656, a remarkable event in US legal history occurred. In the recently-established colony of Maryland, a young English maid-servant called Judith Catchpole was on trial for witchcraft. Having only landed in America in January of that year, poor Judith found the land of the free to be a place of almost immediate imprisonment. A fellow-passenger on the voyage from England had accused her of murdering her new-born child, as well as killing several fellow passengers but then restoring them to life by means of witch-carft. Had her accuser survived the voyage perhaps Judith Catchpole's fate would have been sealed. But as there were no other witnesses and as the case was so unusual, the Maryland authorities took the unique step of appointing an all-female jury to try the case. They needed to know whether Judith had, indeed, given birth. The jury - seven married and four single women - duly conducted their examination and concluded that Judith could not possibly have given birth to a child and she was acquitted.

The trial took place a good twenty years before the celebrated Salem Witch Trials. And almost three hundred years before women in America got the vote. It's remarkable for the unprecedented lengths the authorities at the time seemed to want to go in order to secure justice.

Would that that were always the case.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The cane

There's been a call today - reported in the Daily Express - for a return of this...

Yes. The cane. Apparently almost half of parents interviewed were in favour of the re-introduction of corporal punishment and almost a fifth of secondary school pupils agreed. But I suspect both the parents and pupils might start to think again if it directly affected them.

The cane in schools is like a lot of things - uniform, National Service, policemen cuffing ruffians round the ear - we're happy to agree with if it doesn't involve us and ours. The thought of anyone caning any of my children - whatever they had done wrong - is anathema, as was the thought - as a teacher - of having to cane anyone.

And anyway, are things really that bad? With riots on the streets and stabbings in the playground it might seem so. But as today's Telegraph points out, it was ever thus. 'Are today's children wickeder?' screamed a headline back in... 1932.

But perhaps the single biggest reason for not bringing back the cane is the fact that - surveys like this notwithstanding - parents today would never react in the way they used to do back in the 'good old days'. We had the cane when I was at school. I had it once myself. And I distinctly remember talking to boys after they'd 'had it' and asking them if they were going to tell their parents. 'No fear' was the reply. 'If I did that I'd get it again as soon as I got home.'

Judging by the number of anguished 'phone calls I had to take from parents whose children had been given an after-school detention ('he can't possibly have done it/stay behind/be that sort of boy') I rather think the reaction these days of parents being told by their son (or daughter) that they'd got the cane would be a little different.

Which makes the survey findings all the more ironic. Hear what I had to say on the matter on the Peter Levy show on BBCiPlayer (8mins 40secs) for the next seven days

Monday, 5 September 2011

Back to School

Ah September, when the sound of squeaky new school shoes can be heard in our land once again; when the whites of crisp new shirts dazzles the eye like no sun ever did this summer; when pencils are sharpened, bags packed and unfamiliar yet familiar journeys taken.

Yes, it's back to school time again and not just for our children (except, perhaps, in the loosest sense). Because today also marks the day when our beloved MPs return to the parliamentary bear-pit or - as they so quaintly refer to it - 'work'. Some, no doubt in common with the thousands of servicemen who received redundancy notices last Friday, may be doing so for the last time. But not half enough of them. Because amid all the many (and necessary) cuts there have been to public services, amid the redundancy notices and rationalisations, there seems to have been one notable public institution to have escaped completely. While MPs wring their hands about the pain of putting people out of work, while Ministers moulder on about each sector of the economy shouldering its fair share of the burden, while every public institution from schools and hospitals to the police and the armed forces seems fair game for each fell swoop of the Osborne axe our dear old MPs - and their local equivalent, the councillors - seem to sally forth regardless.

And yet, they're not cheap. Salaries, expenses, not to mention the cost of administering the ridiculous process that gets them elected, would all amount to a considerable saving I'm sure. Do we need so many of them? Do we need elected representatives at every level from the Parish Council to the European Parliament? I feel sure there's a bit of slack in the system. I'm certain there's scope for a few redundancies. And you never know, a leaner, fitter Town Hall might actually work better; fewer 'yah boos' shouting in Parliament might actually make the debates a bit smarter. I'm all for a bit of democracy, in its place. After all, it's been what people in Libya have been fighting for all summer.

But you can have too much of a good thing, surely?

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Dead News Network

There aren't many advantages of having very small children waking you up in the middle of the night. Peering through the curtains at the moon, 'thinned to an air-sharpened blade' perhaps? Or the opportunity to visit the lavatory without having your bladder wake you first?

Strangely, there are times in the night when Eloise wakes, feeds, goes back to sleep and I can't. It's not for lack of desire - or need. It just seems to be one of those 'sods law' things that sometimes, everyone else falls back to sleep and I don't. So I listen to the radio, with headphones. And the radio I most often listen to is BBC World Service.

I'm not really sure why. Probably because if I listen to anything at bedtime, it's usually Radio Four and - once that goes off-air - the World Service takes over. No longer to the strains of Lillibulero, though. Oh no. Nowadays, the 21st century World Service is less patrician and more, well - interesting. Never more so than the night before last when I happened to catch this fascinating item on an Irish medium - you know, of the 'gift' variety, the 'I-can-hear-what-the-dead-are-saying' type of person, the kind of person - the kind of phenomenon - I'm always fascinated by and sceptical of in pretty equal measure. I mean, those messages: they're all so mundane. You'd think the dead might say something more universally significant, wouldn't you? Well, I would. I accept there must be some kind of code-of-practice that prevents them divulging next week's lottery numbers but if it's true couldn't they at least tip us the wink before the next major earthquake or something?

No matter. The Dead News Network was a fascinating programme, and if you were doing what most people should at about 3a.m. on Monday morning, you'll have missed it. So catch it while you can here, on BBC iPlayer.

Friday, 8 July 2011

South Sudan

So, it's happened. At midnight last night Sudan that was one became two separate countries. The background is complicated, as it usually is in post-colonial Africa. Territories once ruled as part of an Empire seldom lend themselves to unified self-government once the colonial masters have tired of them. Take a look at the map: those boundaries aren't tribal; they're hardly even (naturally) territorial. They're imperial; they're military; they're handy ways of demarcating territory if you've got competition from another greedy, empire building country. In the reality of day-to-day self-government, they're quite often a disaster. So I wish the people of South Sudan well. They could've chosen a slightly better time to have a party. Because one of the biggest disasters ever to hit the horn of Africa is looming like Banquo's ghost at the Sudanese feast. These people need our help. It's the least we can do given the legacy we've often left them.

People trekking to raise money for UNICEF UK © Across the DivideNearly two million children are currently at risk of starvation in East Africa due to a combination of drought and rising food prices. Please donate to UNICEF's East Africa appeal.

Children of South Sudan urgently need our help now. To support UNICEF’s child survival projects in South Sudan text ‘SUDAN’ to 70007 or go to www.unicef.org.uk/southsudanappeal

Thursday, 30 June 2011

9 Ways to Use Social Media to Launch a Book | Social Media Examiner

I'm always on the look-out for innovative ways to create a buzz around the books I write and this article is about the best there is:

9 Ways to Use Social Media to Launch a Book | Social Media Examiner

Thanks to Michael Stelzner for some amazingly inspirational ideas.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The end of the typewriter

I'm something of a typewriter fan, as you can possibly guess from the covers of my novel, Writing Therapy. So the news that the last typewriter factory has closed its doors for good is sad, if inevitable. I learnt to type on an old Imperial Good Companion Model T (exactly the same as on the paperback cover) and hammered out so many hundreds of thousands of words that the ribbon holder snapped and the thing had to be consigned to the scrap heap. But it didn't matter. Because - by that time - I was getting to grips with my first PC, learning to be lighter on the keyboard and loving the ease with which I could erase errors or cut-and-paste without the need for glue and scissors. In the excitement of the new technology I soon forgot the smell of a brand-new ribbon, the stain of the ink, the rasp of the platten feeding in another sheet of paper; I even lost the hard pads of skin on the ends of my fingers.

But later, I began to miss the sound of the hammers hitting letters into paper and the whole, visceral experience of writing on a typewriter. I regretted not keeping the old 'Good Companion' as a souvenir of all the writing that I did on it. So when I saw one through the window of a charity shop one day, I knew I had to have it. I went back the moment the shop opened and gladly parted with the £2.50 they were asking for a perfect, working replica of that old, well-loved, well-worn machine of mine.

And now, they are to be no more. There are just a few left in stock at the factory in Mumbai and no more rolling off the production line. Which means, of course, that there'll soon be no more spares. So, the words that remain on the replacement will have to be special ones. It'll be a slow farewell to the old Imperial. But it's also goodbye, Remington; and au revoir to Olivetti.

I'll miss them.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry on comments:

Meanwhile, over on TheJackB there's this post taking a rather different view of the whole comments thing, especially as related to blogs and blogging: The Easiest Way to get Comments on Your Blog.

I suppose you pays your money and takes your choice.

But what do you think?

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Templeton Foundation

There's been a bit of a fuss over Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees accepting the Templeton Prize. You see, the award is given annually for 'Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities'. And Martin Rees is an atheist, a fact which he didn't seem to think relevant when accepting the award, not to mention the million pounds that goes with it. But my, aren't the other academic atheists upset. Peter Atkins was being very snooty about it on the Today programme; and, of course, Richard Dawkins had to add his own dismissive comment in The Independent.

But listening to evangelical atheists extoling the virtues of science, dismissing the 'irrational' and promulgating the myth that what they do is wholly evidence-based annoyed me, for some reason. I'm no theist; neither am I atheist; I'm no flat-earther; I'm no Bishop Ussher nutter either.

But 'rational' science isn't always quite as rational as it seems. At the business end (I'm taking, after the experiments are done, when a scientist sits down to make sense of them, to understand them, to explain them and to integrate them with everything else he knows to be true) comes something which is - of course - based on evidence but which isn't really 'fact' at all; something that has to invented, to be chosen, believed in, assented to, have faith given it. That something is a theory. Here are just a few of them, all ideas, none of them known, all 'believed in' to varying degrees and at various times and in the case of the first, believed in the the tune of funding the multi-billion euro particle accelerator at CERN.

  • there is a mysterious, invisible particle, smaller that the smallest element of an atom which nobody has seen but that has to exist in order to make the mathematical calculations about the origin of our universe correct;
  • and talking of the sub-atomic, no-one's entirely sure why, but particles can pop in and out of existence (or in and out of different dimensions) quite randomly. Again, this is just theory; a theory necessary to make the maths add up;
  • The universe is made of string. Yes, string. But not any old string, oh no. Super string. I kid you not.

Of course, we shouldn't assume that these beliefs won't be proved true, become facts, be supported by heaps of empirical evidence and cease to be matters of scientific faith forever. Some, that is. Because others have already been abandoned. Having been accepted as self-evident truth for a great many years, both 'The Big Crunch' (which states that the universe will begin to contract under the relentless force of gravity) and Freud's theory of the subconscious are now no more than discarded out-of-date ideas. And there are many, many more. But that's how scientists make progress. They move from believing one thing to another. And, as they never cease to remind us, those beliefs are rational. Because they're based on evidence.

Well, here's my thought for the day. Maybe religion is a rational response - a belief, a theory - to the human condition, to our morality, to ultimate mysteries? There's plenty of evidence, after all: our lives, our relationships, our moral instincts, even a so-called 'spiritual' urge which seems to have been around as long as we have. Of course none of this can be proved 'rationally'. But to suggest it can or belittle it because it can't seems to be like saying there's nothing more to music than the black dots on a page, or to a poem than the ink on the paper. You can never prove rationally why it's wrong to commit murder. Try it; it just won't work. But that doesn't mean we should abandon our faith in that principle, or that we shouldn't construct a theory to explain it.