A Season of “Mad Men”

August 3, 2012

Hiroshi HoketsuI wish I had something profound, brilliant and original to say about the London Olympics. However, a quick examination of the morning papers suggests that all the best superlatives and metaphors have been used, nearly every last sporting cliché has been deployed, and even fake sideburns, à la Bradley Wiggins, have become an essential fashion accessory. Sometimes, events are beyond further analysis or comment. The cynic occasionally finds the sharpened tongue dulled by enthusiasm, the sceptic has their dun-coloured outlook brightened by a spectacle like an Opening Ceremony that celebrates the National Health Service, the curmudgeon’s grumbles are stilled by marvels like the 71 year old Japanese athlete Hiroshi Hoketsu taking part in Olympic Equestrian events.

Apart from the Olympics, there is presently a dearth of entertaining television. It’s August: much of Europe is closed for business. In my mind’s eye, I can visualise the entire population of Paris climbing into Citroen 2CVs and aged Peugeots with luggage strapped to the roof, then driving off to the sunshine and beaches of the Riviera. Less romantically, children on both sides of the Atlantic are on their summer holidays. If I ransack my memory for memorable Augusts, I find a noticeable lack: usually, it’s the waiting room of the year, a pause before final blast off in September. The biggest annoyances are generally flies and sudden downpours at picnics; these are soothed with another icy glass of Pimms. Given that it’s such a low octane month, it’s no wonder that the programme planners at the BBC and ITV reach for their dustiest shelves when pulling down recordings of yesteryear’s shows. For example, I think BBC Three is making a point of showing the same aged episodes of “Family Guy” at least three times per week, just to ensure that no one missed them. Or perhaps they thought that people in an August frame of mind wouldn’t notice.

In order to provide a break from sport, tedium and the prevailing overcast weather, my other half bought the DVDs of the first season of “Mad Men”. As with the Olympics, most of the florid language which could be used to describe it has already been deployed. “Stylish”, “brilliant”, “masterfully written” and “beautifully filmed” are all terms which have appeared repeatedly in reference to this show. Previously, I’d been put off by the hype: besides, I had a bad feeling that a period piece about America in the 1960’s would be somehow self indulgent. The United States was dominant during this period and it was reasonable to fear that the show’s American producers would be unable to resist the temptation to paint the time in far too warm colours. Additionally, it was difficult to envisage how a programme that featured the sultry and alluring Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway (a character which is suggested could be Marilyn Monroe’s role model) could be anything other than an encomium to the era.

Mad Men - Complete Season 1 [DVD] (DVD)

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However, it isn’t. The Sixties are presented as a seething, jittery time from the moment we’re shown the opening credits: the theme music suggests jangled nerves and depression, an animation shows a man stepping into his office and then falling through the floor. The characters are a peculiar yet realistic mix of virtue and vice. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the main character, is an advertising executive. He is simultaneously a serial womaniser and a caring father; he is moral vacuum yet also an ethical businessman. The latter quality is illustrated when Draper’s firm is presented with a choice: they could either continue to work with a small, regional airline called Mohawk, or they could drop them in order to have a chance at earning American Airlines’ custom. Draper strongly argues in favour of Mohawk on the basis of principle. He states that it would simply be wrong to drop a customer that had been honest, straightforward and enthusiastic: this objection is ignored. Draper’s agency subsequently fails to land the client due to a change in American Airlines’ management. Whether the writers intended it or not, this episode encapsulated the thinking which eventually led to our current economic problems; ignore the solid if unspectacular, gamble on big gains. Furthermore, senior management do not appear to pay a particular price for this failure and thus are free to fail again due to indulgence in mindless greed.

The programme also puts the mutability and low cunning of capitalism on display. Draper is presented with a leaflet by a younger colleague; it’s written by the avowedly socialist “Students for a Democratic Society”. However, the commercially-minded Draper and his associate are not at all alarmed by the prospect of hordes of young Reds taking over the country, rather, they look at the tract’s implied messages in order to better sell a brand of coffee to the youth market. Lenin once stated that the capitalists would sell him the rope with which he would hang them; Draper proves to be the anti-Lenin, by twisting the words and thoughts of socialists into a lasso which will rope them into buying more of his clients’ wares.

Don Draper Smoking“Mad Men” also makes a statement about America as a whole: essentially, it suggests that it’s a land littered with psychologically questionable yet likeable phonies. Draper is a “self-made” man: his identity is based on fabrication. He possesses intelligence, cunning, but most of all, ambition; behind the winning smile and confident demeanour is a deeply insecure individual who cannot find respite from his desire for more. He does have “better angels”; sometimes they win, probably not often enough. He is furthermore often a slave to passion. Yet the viewer can’t hate him: for example, a visit he makes to his distressed colleague Peggy (who is languishing in hospital) prevents overt dislike of his character. One can’t truly warm to him either: he’s too unreliable. A comedian who has been cuckolded by Draper tells the dapper ad man that he’s “garbage” and “he knows it”; Draper doesn’t argue. Later, however, Draper punches the comedian in the face. It may be that many struggle with emotions about Draper’s country that are just as conflicted as their feelings about him. Many are likely charmed by the idea of a land of opportunity; they dislike what it takes to reach the upper echelons of American society. There is a belief that Americans are forthright; but perhaps “Mad Men” illustrates that this quality is a veneer, an overt falsehood which is all too detectable. It is a country in which many, like Peggy’s family, are imbued with a strong religious faith; it is also a place where casual adultery happens on a regular basis. It’s a nation that prides itself on being free, but “Mad Men” is full of characters like the closeted homosexual Sal Romano and the fad-chasing Paul Kinsey who seem anything but liberated. The Declaration of Independence states the “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right, but one of the show’s more memorable quotes is, “Everything you think’s gonna make you happy, just turns to crap.” It is fair to say that every society contains a coalition of opposites and the opportunity to say “on the other hand”: perhaps these contradictions pull at each other with greater vigour in the United States than elsewhere. This may be the subtle cause of the writhing restlessness that lurks behind the sharply tailored suits, the regularity of three drinks at six o’clock, and the brightly polished Cadillacs. The Sixties are shown to be good times, yet much is terribly wrong.

So far as I know, “Mad Men” isn’t being broadcast on British television at the moment; it’s easy to see why it would be out of kilter now given the bonhomie imbued by August and the Olympics. Programme planners would rather endlessly repeat jokes about flatulent cartoon characters for those not focused on the spectacle and wonder we see in London. New episodes of “Mad Men” are generally shown between March and June. A pity: it’s more of a September show, with its bright days and ever darkening nights; now is a time to linger in the sun, if one can find it, dip one’s toes into bright Mediterranean seas, and allow Bradley Wiggins style sideburns, if apropos, to grow. In September, there will be a lot more to think about.

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A Weekend in Dublin

August 1, 2012

A Perfect Pint of GuinnessA trip to Dublin offers me an opportunity to visualise another self. I have had two distinct chances to move to Ireland: the first was when I was a callow intern in the Information Technology industry back in the mid 1990s. Thanks to Ireland’s burgeoning high tech economy, it seemed like a prudent place to go: the opportunity disappeared nearly at the last minute. The second time was in 2002; there was a stock images firm based in County Kerry, and it was entirely possible I could have worked for them as a Webmaster. I recall the cramped Ryanair flight from Stansted, the basic airport, a long taxi ride which cost a fistful of Euros, and the near-empty guest house in which I stayed. The landlady who tended it had short dark hair, introduced me to the glory of Irish cooked breakfasts and told me that I was “very welcome”. I believed her. One night, I went down to a pub in the centre of Tralee; as I entered, I noticed that many awards hung on its old oak panelled walls which stated that it served a top class pint of Guinness. I sat at the bar, the locals somewhat curious as to what I, a foreigner, would make of the glass of pitch black liquid with a creamy head. I brought it to my lips, sipped, and the rich and flavoursome nectar flowed over my tongue. Yes. I sat quietly, no one but the aged barkeep engaged me in conversation; it was fine, given the quality of that pint compared to it’s British counterparts, I wanted to focus my attention on what I was drinking. After I finished it, I quietly said “Thank you”; the barkeep nodded.

Afterwards, I walked back to the guest house. The sky was full of stars; there was no light pollution so even the most dim of them could be seen. As I got further away from Tralee, the few sounds of traffic dispersed: instead I heard distant waves crashing against the shore.

Someone else became their Webmaster; perhaps given what has happened to the Irish economy since that time this was a fortunate turn of events. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I moved. I suppose I would have found a way to insert myself into the rhythms of life there, gotten to grips with the various systems, and perhaps even eventually learned Gaelic. I’d read the Irish Times, listen to RTE Lyric FM and gone to the Gaelic Football matches.

Arriving at the age of forty is a chance to look back as well as forwards; thus my other half made an inspired choice by bringing me to Dublin for my birthday. The moment I was able to look out at Leinster’s green landscape, pick up a local newspaper, hear the almost musical cadences in the way people speak, I could almost catch sight of my other self and consider what might have been. Upon reflection, I suppose had I moved, it would have been all right, despite the current poor state of the economy. After all, St. Stephen’s Green looks just as alluring as it did the first time I came to Dublin; the seagulls, swans and pigeons in the pond still compete for visitors’ pieces of bread. Grafton Street was full of shoppers, not all of them tourists, blinking in the July sun. Brown Thomas was as resplendent as ever; the Luxury Hall had Prada iPad cases for sale. Bewley’s was still packed full of people ordering coffee and brown scones with jam. Compared to Barcelona, which I’d visited earlier this year, Dublin looked propserous: indeed, Ireland is doing better than Spain. Last week, Ireland successfully returned to the international bond markets and sold €500 million of its debt. Furthermore, Ireland’s economy is expected to grow this year despite a tough first quarter, which is in marked contrast to Spain, Portugal, Greece and even the UK. Dine at “The Winding Stair” which overlooks the River Liffey: the floors are bare and the tables are not covered in fine tablecloths, nevertheless, the chalkboard suggests exquisite wines to accompany sumptuous dinners. Such variety and sophistication gives Dublin a truly European feel; it may be more cosmopolitan than even London. It can’t just be the tourists; wealth is somehow still being generated, and Europe is still seen as the future.

But look a bit more deeply. There are many signs along Fitzwilliam Street indicating offices to rent: too many, in fact, given the pristine beauty of the 18th century buildings there. Look in the window of a residential estate agent: white stickers cover the original prices of many homes, a sign of a boom turned to desperate bust. The homeless of Dublin sleep in doorways and sit on footbridges, trying to cadge change from passers-by. South of the Liffey, I saw a destitute man wander alongside the now impotent Central Bank of Ireland’s overblown seventies-style concrete offices and adjust his ill-fitting navy blue tracksuit bottoms before running a dirty hand through his thinning brown hair. It would have been altogether poetic had he raised his fist and shaken it accusingly at the edifice.

A Sign of Muted ProtestFurthermore, at least some of the young are completely alienated. A number of lanes intersect Grafton Street: in the bright sunshine, carts selling silver jewellry predominate these alleys. I saw one young man, tall and thin, with blue eyes and blonde hair and wearing a bright green baseball cap, talking to some tourists from Spain as he wrapped up their purchases. The Spanish seemed curious, why hadn’t the Irish rebelled in the same way as their afflicted counterparts in Greece? There had been a referendum on the “Austerity Treaty”, it had passed, and that was all. Why there were no mass movements like the Spanish indignados?

The young man shrugged. “We’re too apathetic,” he said, “We just say, ‘Oh well’ and get on with it, even if everything is going down the toilet.”

He then explained his plans; he said he intends to leave the country as soon as possible. “It’s a tradition in Ireland: we bugger off the moment it gets tough.” He also pointed out, “Ireland’s greatest export is its people.”

This had benefits, he said. “Nearly everywhere there are Irish, and where they are, there will be an Irish pub. Even in the most remote desert there’s an Irishman pulling a pint.”

At that moment, I understood why Dublin has produced no less than 4 Nobel Prize winners for literature: the young man had summoned up a lucid and sentimental vision of his countrymen without even trying. I believe there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written which explores the Celtic imagination and its influence on English literature. However, what the young man said was also deeply depressing: it was clear he was bright, entreprenurial and ambitious. Ireland couldn’t sustain or contain his hopes: he was resigned to going elsewhere to achieving his goals. Meanwhile, it was difficult not to notice that many of the waiters, waitresses, hotel clerks and other customer service personnel I encountered in Dublin were of Eastern European origin. Was this because of wage differentials? Or had Irish expectations been allowed to rise so high that an adjustment downwards would be asking too much? It’s difficult to say; nevertheless, there is something odd about being shown Irish rugby shirts by a young woman whose accent is from much further east than Donnybrook, and simultaneously being aware that the nation’s best talent is fleeing out the back door.

And yet, it should be all right. Go to the Guinness Storehouse: it is an impressive, high-tech and slickly marketed attraction which caps off its exhibitions by offering a free pint to vistors at the “Gravity Bar”. The pint is as good as the one I sipped years ago in Tralee; but now my surroundings weren’t quaint or old-fashioned, rather, I had a 360 degree panoramic view of Dublin. This structure is not the product of a nation that is going to go quietly.

Also, the Irish know whom to charm and how to flatter: one night, at one of Dublin’s better restaurants, I saw an Irish-German Friendship Society dinner taking place at a set of tables opposite to mine. The Germans spoke with genuine warmth about their hosts. No doubt if asked, they would reach into their wallets and save the Irish if necessary, and indeed, they would influence those who could open their wallets wider.

The situation is aided by the fact that the Irish government seems to be one of the better ones in Europe. It’s not perfect by any means, but there is an air of competence which emanates from the Fine Gael / Labour coalition which is lacking from its counterpart across the Irish Sea. The Irish Taoiseach also seems content to keep a much lower profile than his British counterpart; this has arguably allowed him to be more successful.

What may make Irish prosperity certain, however, is their collective mindset. The taxi driver who took my other half and I back to the airport told us that “We had a big party. It’s over now. We’re now tightening our belts so that good times can come back.” Given this attitude, it’s no wonder what the markets have allowed Ireland back in while they shut the likes of Spain out. Call it fatalism or realism, Ireland knows how to endure: it looks problems squarely in the eye, it takes them on, and those who have to leave, will leave, but the door will remain open for their return.

I was happy to go back to Yorkshire, but at the same time, I cannot help but think that my other self on an alternative timeline would have been just as cheerful to remain; who knows, there may be another time in which the chance to be that person presents itself again. If so, I’d embrace it without hesitation.

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July 26, 2012

Peter AndreIn my opinion, only once has Peter Andre been remotely interesting. Several years ago, he appeared on a television programme about age: with the assistance of extensive protesthetics, some acting lessons and clothing procured at a charity shop, he tried to appear much older than he actually is. He attempted to fool his then wife, the pneumatic Katie Price, into thinking he was an Anglican vicar who disapproved of her lifestyle. He gave the game away fairly quickly by addressing her with a private nickname; this thoughtless slip caused the entire prank to dissolve into laughter and embarrassment.

The other participant on the show, Julie Goodyear, had the reverse challenge: she had to come across as being much younger than her years suggest. She was altogether more successful; she even managed to pass herself off as an American. The moral of the story, perhaps, is that it is easier for age to recall youth than for youth to approximate age. Alternatively, it could be merely that Ms. Goodyear is far more intelligent than Mr. Andre.

This lesson has been buzzing around in my brain recently because this week, I will be turning forty. I have been approximating age for a very long time, though perhaps more successfully than Mr. Andre. I recently had occasion to look through old photos of myself: while I saw a younger, fitter version of me with more hair on my head, I also recalled a distinct sense of disquiet. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved who I was supposed to be, my interests and my age didn’t marry up. Others around me sensed this; when I was in my twenties, I briefly was in a relationship with a young lady who would say, jokingly, “You’re 47, right?” Now my years and my outlook align: the face I see in the mirror reflects what I think and feel. I am comfortable in my skin; I should be happy, and in many ways I am. Nevertheless, as I say a final good-bye to my youth, I will miss some of its aspects.

In my youth, I was foolishly romantic. I didn’t quite know back then that true love arose from accepting someone entire, faults and all. I didn’t fully realise that relationships involved extensive compromise and the ability to say “Sorry” and mean it on a frequent basis. Because these concepts weren’t fully formed, I could indulge in meanders down the fantastic and imaginary alleyways of “ideal love”; I believed that the constant searching and restlessness that were the feature of my younger years would find rest in another. I have even had a moment of being thunderstruck by instant affection.

18 years ago, I was finishing up my Bachelor’s degree with a course that took my classmates and myself on a tour of Eastern Europe. We went from London to Brussels to Berlin to Warsaw to Krakow and then to Budapest. By the time the group arrived in Budapest, we were exhausted. As part of the Krakow stop, we had taken a tour of Auschwitz, an experience which still scars my memory. I recall the abandoned crematoria, and the flakes of human bone that they once spewed out which still lay among the tall grass. In the museum, there were piles of suitcases never to be reunited with their owners. The piles of eyeglasses and shoes were just as heart rending.

Budapest StationBudapest, then, was a respite. Red poppies grew in the rail yard and swayed on a warm breeze; the station was a magnificent piece of 19th century architecture, a testament to belief in industry and progress. The silvery Danube flowed through the middle of the city; on both the Buda and the Pest side, there was an air of well-being, punctuated by delicate music plucked out by a busker with a zither. I fear this sense of bonhomie has since deserted the place.

We students were granted a day off. I went on a wander by myself; I first went shopping on the Pest side. I bought a book on the collapse of the Soviet Union at an English language bookstore; this seemed apropos given that the transformation of Eastern Europe was the main subject of my course. I then went walking along the shopping streets, pausing at a shop window that featured a t-shirt emblazoned with the pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin and the legend “Game Over”. This seemed like a great souvenir; furthermore, given that I had been to Berlin not long after the Wall fell, it was particularly poignant for me. When I was there, I had borrowed a hammer and pick from some students and my younger sister and I had chiselled out several pieces of that hated Wall.

I went in the store and picked out several shirts. A female voice asked from behind me if I needed some assistance. I don’t believe I gave a particularly eloquent reply in the negative. As I went to the counter, I set down the clear plastic bag which contained my book; the same voice asked if I was interested in Russian history. I turned to face my questioner.

She was younger than I. She had golden blonde hair which were done up braids, and she wore a traditional Hungarian outfit in black with applique flowers in pink and white. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, her smile was radiant. My heart raced; my hands shook. I couldn’t leave the store without making a total fool of myself by asking her to breakfast the next morning or at least the chance to write to her. She consented to give me her address. Feeling as if every internal organ had been turned over and twisted, I left the shop and raced across the Chain Bridge. By this time, rain was starting to fall in earnest. There is a set of stairs which lead up to the top of the Buda hills. Despite being slippery and muddy, and the cold rain penetrating my thin denim jacket, I ran up them. I then raced down the narrow streets of Buda, passing the 18th and 19th century homes lined up along cobblestone pavements and found the Matthias Church. I went inside and in the dim illumination provided by candlelight, I said a prayer, for I had thought that in that moment my turbulent soul had found its home. I believed that when I said “I love you” that the person for whom that statement was intended and meant had been discovered. From that moment on, I was sure, I would not only know, but understand: I would also be inspired, the flame of which would keep me alight for the rest of my days.

Sadly, life’s path is seldom covered in rose petals. She and I did write to each other. However, she had a boyfriend; she later married him. It was not too long after I had finished my Bachelor’s degree and found myself living in a tiny, humid cottage in Hertfordshire that I received her wedding pictures: she was a vision in white, her new husband and she smiling happily for the cameras. The photos came in a thick stack. After viewing two of them, I threw the rest in the trash. My older self wishes that I could transport back in time to that younger variant and say “No, don’t go down that path”. A lot of mistakes would have been avoided had I not persisted in my belief. Abjure poetry and reject Cyrano, the reality of love is that you have to be able to laughingly tolerate each other’s foibles and quirks. That may be more profound than the idea of it opening before you like a bloom in the first rays of Spring sunshine as that kind of affection has to flourish in more stony soil.

I say that, and then wonder: perhaps the grief of Budapest and the other sorrows that followed were formative. There were wonderful moments associated with being romantic; there was not just Budapest in the rain, but there was Chicago on a snowy night, Amsterdam in the spring and West Virginia in the summer sun. Time perhaps tempered and refined all my tendencies rather than stilled them completely. Maybe also I couldn’t have learned my final lesson without going through all the other courses associated with it. I found my heart’s home when I least expected to do so, namely not long after I was just about ready to give up. My last date prior to meeting my present significant other was an unmitigated disaster: my companion for the day was a doctoral student of Mediterranean origin and exhuberantly so. She wore red. She pinched my cheeks upon greeting me, a peculiar gesture to a man of 38 years as I then was, and referred to me as a “delightful boy”. This behaviour perhaps could be ascribed to cultural peculiarities, the fact that she was constantly on the phone and strangely temperamental could not. I fled as soon as I politely could; I descended into the bowels of the Victoria Line and heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Now here I am in Bradford, with my home, my other half and our three cats. When I’m at work and the clock approaches the appointed hour, I feel liberated, happy to get in my car and go back to talk of grocery lists and taking out the trash. When I greet her at the door, I recall the day we met and how I plucked a single peach coloured rose from my garden as a gift. No, this wasn’t what I envisaged when I was drenched by the rain in Budapest, but it is better because it is real rather than merely ideal. It endures.

The theme is consistent. Yes, I miss aspects of youth: I could run for miles, I had better cut suits and I fit into them well, there were no grey hairs to vex me, and my knees didn’t creak like they needed oiling. I also had the one great luxury of youth: a belief that vast amounts of time lay ahead, and I had a constant ability to say to myself that I was young and free. But free to do what? I suppose I could stay out all night: and 9 years ago, it was altogether thrilling when I was with work colleagues for a pub lock-in until two o’clock in the morning. I remember the dark wood panelling of the pub, the scent of stale beer, the orange street lamps and all too occasional taxi cabs winding their way up Farringdon Road. Now my liver and stomach would revolt against such consumption of alcohol and very late hours seem stupid; did I lose much by arriving at this conclusion? I gleaned all the pleasure I could from doing it back then; that’s enough, now is better.

I know that age has its pitfalls and pains: a friend of mine and my other half said to us over the weekend that once one hits the mid-forties, certain things, such as putting on shoes and socks, become more problematic. When I descend the stair in the morning and see the cats bound ahead of me, I can sense this physical decline approaching. Furthermore, I am slowly surrendering to alopecia, and it takes ever more cups of strong coffee to get my engine running. Certain things can be improved and I will do so, but as I wrote in an as yet unpublished novel, “Entropy is a fact of life.” All things reach a peak and then decline. I’ve reached the top or nearly the top of life’s arc. This doesn’t mean that what happens from here on in cannot be enjoyed, savoured, relished and remembered. I am older and happily so. That doesn’t mean at all that I am near dead.

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Review: “The Dark Knight Rises” starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway

July 25, 2012

Batman the Dark Knight RisesChristopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy has dramatically altered how we view “superhero” films. Prior to “Batman Begins”, there was an expectation that such movies would be as lurid as their printed counterparts; the audience’s suspension of disbelief was taken for granted, their willingness to accept a villain, say, who had fallen into a vat of chemicals at a playing card factory and thus was rendered “The Joker”, was assured. Villains’ lairs could be absurd, like Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face’s divided home, each side featuring its own appropriately attired moll serving quail’s eggs on one half, and donkey meat on the other.

While there are films of this genre which remain ludicrous, they are now seen as and felt to be ludicrous. The paradigm has changed. The Joker is no longer the flamboyant giggling lunatic that Jack Nicholson portrayed in 1989, rather, he has become Heath Ledger’s genuinely menacing psychopath. Batman’s ephemeral searching for romantic fulfillment and mawkish mourning for his dead parents in the earlier films has since been transformed into a set of believable neuroses. The Alfred of old, who was a two dimensional and a somewhat staid and stuffy character, is now portrayed by working class and genuinely sentimental Michael Caine. We have swapped the packaging for the gift inside, surface glamour for depth and interiority. We have even traded lurid comic book colours for washed out shades of brown and grey.

These upgrades have made the Batman story much more interesting. As a result, it was with some sadness that I went to see the last of the Dark Knight trilogy. It is entirely possible that there will be more films made, but this last episode had a difficult birth, not least because it took Christopher Nolan some time to find a story that he particularly liked. Given this, this is very likely the swan song for the “Dark Knight”.

The film is set 8 years after the last one. Thanks to reforms instigated by the events in the prior episode, crime in Gotham has largely been defeated: this is a transformation which mirrors the changes in New York City. No longer needed to do battle with evil, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, albeit with fingernails and hair that don’t require much trimming. I was delighted that Wayne was shown to be unsteady on his feet: he has been hobbled by his superhero activities. To ram the point home, a doctor gives him a negative prognosis about his joints and flexibility: extreme sports, he’s advised, are out. In my opinion, Nolan has done well by bringing in age, wear and tear as a plot point. This aspect allows a topic to be explored which has hitherto been lacking from such films, specifically what happens if a “superhero” is, underneath it all, an ordinary man? What damage is done by leaping about and getting into fights all the time? Wayne is physically broken and spiritually bereft; but never mind, Batman is needed.

Bane in Dark Knight RisesBatman’s return is necessary because the city is menaced by a new villain: Bane, as played by Tom Hardy. Perhaps the most unsatisfying aspect of the film is the lack of a full explanation of his origins: Bane has the physique and visage of a Mexican wrestler but speaks with the accent, intonation and eloquence of a Shakespearean actor. He is shown to have a sensitivity and appreciation for music, but is also capable of extraordinary violence. It is disturbing to consider that someone so obviously cultured can also be extremely brutal: however, many of the worst monsters that have plagued modern history, for example Reinhard Heydrich, possessed this combination.

At first, Bane’s purpose appears to be to instigate the ultimate “hostile takeover” on behalf of a greedy employer. However, he is actually a hard core terrorist, trained by Batman’s nemesis from the first film, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson); Ra’s al Ghul wished to destroy Gotham, and Bane intends to fulfill this charge.

As for the other antagonist, Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, otherwise known as “Catwoman”. The “Catwoman” moniker was not deployed in earnest in this film, nor is there any particular feline behaviour seen; this is not Julie Newmar’s outrageously purring, meowing Catwoman. Rather, this “Catwoman” is a cat burglar who is also a skilled pickpocket and extensively trained in martial arts. Furthermore, she is not particularly evil: her misdeeds are more self-centred, i.e., she’s more interested in self-preservation and wiping her record clean. She also is capable of feeling remorse and acting on nobler impulses.

The Dark Knight Rises taps into our present societal traumas; this greatly enhances the plot. For example, Bruce Wayne is warned by Selina Kyle that he and his rich friends will have their fortunes swept away. Furthermore, Wayne Enterprises is in trouble due to bad investments; economic chaos is one of the forms of terrorism that Bane’s henchmen deploy. However, I suspect much of the audience developed some sympathy for Bane after he kidnapped selfish, crude yet well-dressed stock brokers to use as human shields in a getaway. A kangaroo court which is formed at Bane’s instigation to punish wealthy and powerful miscreants had disturbing echoes of Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union’s early days. In essence, Nolan suggests prosperity, peace and order are very fragile; this thesis implants an interesting element of social commentary into the film.

The Dark Knight Rises also packs quite a dramatic punch: there is a significant plot twist towards the very end. Up until that point, I had a relatively clear idea of what was happening and what would happen. Then it came, as sharp as a knife: some might say it was contrived, but nevertheless, it worked well and was genuinely surprising.

The Dark Knight Rises is not without its flaws: there are still remnants of the “Batman in Love” problem. In this film, his romantic attentions are divided between Selina Kyle and Wayne’s fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). A lot of very fine actors, including the superlative Gary Oldman reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon, get too little air time. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Detective John Blake was excellent and relentless, he is too obviously set up as Batman’s future sidekick when it’s revealed his legal first name is “Robin”.

Nevertheless, when the film ended, it was rather melancholy to think that we won’t see any more of this; the rest may be left to run in the imagination. But perhaps Nolan knows best: 1989’s Batman, which was less than optimal apart from Nicholson’s performance, segued into some very unsatisfying films culminating in the dreadful “Batman & Robin” in 1997. Nolan has made it clear that he would rather tell no tales than relay a sub-par one: for this he should be complimented. Though the fans may be hungry for more, if he finishes at this point, he can be proud of a fine trilogy which will likely stand as the definitive superhero films of our era.

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A Walk in Bradford

July 20, 2012

A View of Fagley BradfordThere is a path that runs in parallel to the playing fields of St. Clare’s Catholic School in Fagley, Bradford. Along its sides grow thistles and nettles and every type of suburban wild flower. Walk down from the path’s entrance on Moorside Road, avoid the prickles and stinging leaves, and ignore the bark of loud, alarmed dogs from neighbouring yards. At the end, lay one the quietest neighbourhoods in Bradford. I strolled down this way on Wednesday evening.

If there is a part of Britain that feels more removed from the thoughts of leaders and luminaries, I have yet to find it: even the open countryside has English Heritage and others to speak on its behalf. There lies a set of former social housing homes, likely long since surrendered up to a Buy to Let scheme. Some of the houses had tidy yards, others were in a state of advanced disrepair: in front of one home made of crumbling brown brick was a patch of ground that bore nothing but overgrown grass and a rusty trampoline. Crushed cans of Carling Black Label littered parts of the pavement.

There is a small green in the middle of this neighbourhood: the carpet of grass was heavily pockmarked with weeds, nevertheless, a small dark brown pony with a contrasting splodge of white on its back crunched happily on the greenery. The pony’s dilapidated cart was set to one side. I assumed that this was the vehicle for our local scrap merchant whom I sometimes see doing the rounds in my neighbourhood.

Further along, there was a house with a dented yellow skip in its driveway. My other half and I spotted a boy with curly blonde hair; he was probably about six years old, had a bright blue dummy in his mouth and wore a blue cardigan with holes in the sleeves. My other half thought it was curious that such a small child should be out for a walk on his own. Nevertheless, he strode with confidence. He pushed on a gate in front of one of the houses; ah, we reasoned, he was going home. Then he emerged again, dummy still in his mouth. As we got closer, we saw his face was streaked with dirt. He was carrying a hammer which was so large he needed to hold it in both hands. Why? We didn’t wait to find out. The little boy cheerfully said “Hello” to us, and we replied in kind. His young sister, dressed in a dirty pink dress, was standing in the driveway looking on.

By that time, it was about seven o’clock. The sun was still up, and the air was pleasantly cool. There were no sounds of televisions or radios, no idle chatter floating from open windows. I didn’t detect any scent of cooking. Amidst the crooked satellite dishes pointing up at the clear sky and the crushed Cheese and Onion crisp packets strewn on the broken pavement there seemed to be little happening. Perhaps activity was confined to weekends or after dark. I wondered if the children went to St. Clare’s or another of the schools in the area: they vary greatly in quality. For example, Ofsted recently rated St. Clare’s as “Good”; however the Cavendish Primary School up the road scraped by with mostly “Satisfactory” reviews.

“How do you get out of this neighbourhood,” I wondered as we proceeded onward. Its constricting quietude seemed endless. Furthermore, never had I felt the class system quite so rigidly enforced: if one was born in this neighbourhood, it seemed, it was one’s destiny to live in just such a place for good. If you were a lad, you would endure years of schooling and in the afternoons go to the sparse corner store with the wary shopkeeper glaring at you suspiciously from behind the counter. You drank knock off brand energy drinks and would later graduate to cheap lager and you were expected to talk about football. If you were a teenage girl, you perhaps went out to a club on Friday nights, endured the clumsy advances of boys who had consumed far too many Jägerbombs and tried to dance and talk with friends until the dawn. The traditional ladders to climb out of this milieu, such as higher education and well-funded public services, seem to have been kicked away. Furthermore, the opportunity to obtain meaningful employment in a respected trade is long gone: the smokestacks of derelict wool mills in the distance were tribute to that. This is not a Britain that receives much thought: certainly, the desperate and extreme cases in London and other large cities receive some, particularly when the people who live there go forth and riot in more affluent places. But what about the parts of the nation that quietly suffer, endure, and cannot progress? There are generations which while not on benefit, are being condemned to repeat a cycle of near-servitude, earning low wages behind the tills of the service economy, whose true talent lay untapped, potential unknown. Meanwhile, avatars of low intellect like Jeremy Hunt find that because of an accident of birth, their progress through life is relatively smooth. Also, the corruption and mistakes of people like Hunt are, by and large, swept under the carpet.

A Bradford FarmhouseKeep walking: turn off onto another path, and one happens onto another world. Step beyond the concrete bollards ringed with graffiti and rubber tyres, and there are rolling hills and green fields: brown and white ponies graze in open pastures. There is a line of trees along a ridge which sways in the passing breeze. My other half spotted a broken farmhouse, made of alabaster Yorkshire brick which overlooks this scene. In the distance lay the tidy houses of north Bradford, and as I looked at the horizon, I saw a plane making its final descent into Leeds Bradford Airport. This was a view that one would want to wake up to every morning; my other half and I examined the wrecked farmhouse and wondered if it was for sale and how much it would cost to rebuild. I could imagine the floors, now covered in shattered brickwork, replaced with laminate, the scents of coffee and toast emanating from a rebuilt kitchen, and the dawn’s first rays coming through a large window. If I were sufficiently wealthy, I would have run to the nearby riding school and asked “How much?” and endured months of an insane project just to acquire the life the farmhouse promised. But that’s just a dream: we walked on, and found a dip and then a bend in the road which led to a steep incline. A meadow in which buttercups grow lay to our right. A tidy Victorian terrace and several modern cottages overlooked it. We had arrived in Eccleshill.

This stroll was reminder that it’s both wonderful and maddening to live in Bradford; take a different walk on another day through Little Germany in the town centre and one finds beautiful nineteenth century architecture, a legacy of when it was bigger and more wealthy city than Leeds. The offices and flats there have been rebuilt, but they are presently empty. Then look at “The Hole”, also in the city centre, where a shopping mall is supposed to be but isn’t and one sees how far the city has fallen: it was wealthy, but lost it. Now it has all the potential in the world, but seems unable to realise it. Life can be beautiful here and often is, but it isn’t alluring for enough. Those who govern Britain don’t take walks through Bradford and thus have no concept of urban paralysis. They don’t, and thus are unable to at least forestall any further harm. They don’t, and so Britain, in so many parts a lovely country, is also in many ways a very miserable one. They don’t, and it’s to their lasting shame.

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In Praise of the London Olympics

July 18, 2012

Money Down the DrainEvery Olympics contains elements of both triumph and disaster. The 1972 Olympics in Munich were notable for both a terrible terrorist incident involving the Israeli weightlifting team and Mark Spitz’s accumulation of seven gold medals, a feat not surpassed for over 30 years. The 1976 Olympics in Montreal are remembered both for Bruce Jenner’s world record setting triumph in the decathalon and for debts which weren’t finally paid off until 2006. Even the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which ran like clockwork, required the forced evictions of up to a million people. What the calamities have in common is that they speak of the weaknesses of the host nation: Germany in 1972 was still coming to terms with the difficult legacy of the Holocaust, Montreal’s government was profligate, the Chinese government still doesn’t give a hoot about human rights. We perhaps should be thankful then for the forthcoming Olympics, as it shows the problems of modern Britain in stark relief. While we rightly damn the difficulties and expense, its lasting legacy may be to present what is in most dire need of correction.

For example, a belief has hitherto prevailed that somehow “private is better”; this has been the case since Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. After all, during the 1970’s the nationalised coal industry had failed to produce enough energy to keep the lights on and British Leyland somehow thought the Austin Allegro was a car that people might want to drive. How comforting it was to believe that such problems had a simple answer, and that one wave of the magic wand marked “privatisation” would ensure that all would be well. How much more difficult it would have been to tackle a long legacy of mistrust between management and labour, a lack of quality control procedures and an unwillingness to embrace imagination rather than cheapness as a British business virtue. Never mind that greater emphasis on the private sector meant that wages stagnated over time, while a minority, predominantly those in the financial industry, grew very wealthy indeed. At least the liability was off the government’s books and the lights stayed on: problem solved, so far as the politicians were concerned.

The multitude of failures by the private security firm G4S have re-emphasised that just because something is private doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well run. Security has nothing to do with hiring a few Keystone Cops to bumble about and wipe a few kids’ noses: it’s literally a matter of life and death. While it is unlikely, though not impossible, that a terrorist incident could be staged at the Games, there are more mundane matters of crowd control and personal safety which need due care and attention. A badly managed crowd can lead to genuine tragedy, as the Hillsborough disaster showed. Uncontrolled masses of people and alcohol can also prove to be a toxic mix. Yet, despite warnings, the organisers of the Olympics trusted G4S until almost the very last minute: even those personnel who will show up are unlikely to be of high quality. If we believe passable communication skills and good training are important in any security team, then some of the examples of G4S staff as seen on television are displaying a worrying lack: the reports are uniform in suggesting that training has been slapdash and some have a questionable grasp of English. As Nick Buckles, the head of G4S, stated before the Parliamentary Select Committee, “I don’t know what fluent English is,” Worse, G4S couldn’t keep track of its hires: according to a Channel 4 news report, G4S is presently unable to guarantee turnout of staff to its assignments. Under these circumstances, to suggest that “private is better” is to go up against the facts: if making money is the priority, then all other considerations tend to be of secondary importance. To put it another way, the police and military are far more trained and trusted to provide security at the Olympics because their primary mission as organisations is not to turn a profit, but rather, they are there to protect the public. Questions can and should follow in light of this: for example, what do we get from a health service whose main motive is to provide shareholder value as opposed to treating people?

Other weaknesses have also made themselves glaringly apparent, including the fact that far too much of modern life is taken up by corporations. Olympic sponsorship deals provide an extreme example of this infringement. As a report in the Independent newspaper stated, many words are restricted:

“Olympics organisers have warned businesses that during London 2012 their advertising should not include a list of banned words, including “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”, “summer”, “sponsors” and “London”.”

The rules will be enforced by a purple clad “sponsorship police”. Furthermore, only McDonalds is allowed to sell chips in isolation, though it can be rightly said that McDonalds’ chips relationship to genuine British chips is approximately the same as Budweiser to Yorkshire bitter: it is mass produced and bland versus authentic and flavoursome. One would think that such restrictions are a violation of free speech and indeed are an undue restraint on trade: but as the Olympics proves, this is not important so long as the corporations are pleased. We are neither living an a truly open society nor do we have a free and competitive market as originally envisaged by Adam Smith: rather, our fundamental rights can be bent and altered provided the entity which requests the deviation has a sufficient bank balance. Thanks to the Olympics, this reality is now nearly impossible to avoid.

Olympic Traffic SignsThe Games also highlight the awful state of Britain’s transport infrastructure; leaving aside the impending disaster of an overburdened Tube network, both American and Australian athletes found that their journeys from Heathrow to the Olympic Village were over 3 hours long. Indeed, the Americans were on the road for about 4 hours. The distance between the airport and the village is approximately 23 miles. Yet, Olympic officials stated that average time to get from the airport to the village is two hours. To put it another way, average traffic conditions in London, even with special arrangements for the Olympics, mean that the buses can only go 11 1/2 miles per hour. While looking at the extreme cases, there is a need to address the poverty in basic standards.

No doubt other harsh realities will be exposed before the Games finally come to an end. We will probably find out the depths of embarrassment we can plumb by having a notable buffoon as mayor of the nation’s capital and a corrupt Culture Secretary as a figurehead. We will likely learn some ugly truths about how devoted we are to the mawkish and cloying through the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Because he can’t help himself, we are certain to see David Cameron at his smarmiest as he tries to associate himself with any and every British gold medal winner. No doubt there will be much finger pointing when the Games’ debts prove larger than expected. We also will probably discover how terribly inaccessible London is for disabled people when the Paralympics follow on. Of course, there will be contrasting highlights: I still look for an equivalent to that beautiful moment during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Linford Christie won the 100m dash. London may provide this. Such achievements are wondrous, worthy of national pride: but nevertheless there is much more to be gained by looking the problems and failures with clear eyes. The Olympics are a wasteful £9.3 billion extravaganza, coming at the expense of cuts to the police, the health service and education: we are unlikely to turn a profit on it, but at least perhaps we can profit by its exposure of the truth. Unlike the airy talk of Britain becoming more of a sporting nation, this epitaph has real value and consequence.

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Breakfast with Sexism

July 13, 2012

Waking UpI usually get up early, just before “Farming Today” and just after the extended weather forecast on BBC Radio 4. After my clock radio goes off, I sit up, take my vitamins and medication which I store in my night table drawer: this morning I washed them down with lukewarm Diet Dr. Pepper. Generally, two of my cats are waiting for me either on or beside the bed, their bright eyes expressing joy at the prospect of breakfast. When I peel back the duvet and stand up, they run ahead of me down the stairs: I can’t help but think of the Madness tune “Baggy Trousers” as my cat Thomas races to the kitchen. Upon catching up with him, I feed the cats, make coffee and switch on the television; usually I’m greeted by the BBC’s “World Business Today” programme. They often have on some anonymous luminary who is probably notable solely for being able to wake up at 4 AM cheerfully. He or she reviews the papers with two presenters who do their best to not seem overly fatigued.

There is a cumulative effect to such mornings: by the time the work week draws to a close, I find that it takes a bit more time for me to fully awaken, a tad longer is required before there’s no sleep in my eyes and there’s clarity instead of fog lingering in my brain. This morning the anonymous luminary’s words flowed in one ear and out the other. At such a time, I’m ready to have issues reduced to the intellectual level required by the average tabloid reader and simply happy when the weather forecast doesn’t indicate a heavy rain storm again. In other words, I was primed for the somewhat chummy and mentally untaxing BBC Breakfast programme.

I suppose there’s something genuinely humourous about a news programme that, for example, reports on milk prices by having their reporter visit a dairy farm. This is presumably to remind the viewers were milk comes from; the reporter’s obvious disgust and difficult trudge through a field whilst wearing sticky Wellies also probably serve as reminders that cows don’t excrete sunshine nor always give off the most pleasant aroma. However, it’s one thing to be silly and brainless, it’s quite another to indulge in casual sexism: this is what occured on this morning’s show during a feature about car parking. Apparently the mayor of Triberg, Germany, decided to allocate “easy” parking spaces for women and “difficult” ones for men. In response, BBC Breakfast asked this question: are men or women better at this?

This query disproves the notion that there are no stupid questions. Regardless of gender, we are each born with differing abilities when it comes to visual estimations and understanding of geometry. To suggest that one half or humanity or the other has a superior ability to reverse a Nissan Micra it is to oversimplify matters terribly: I am probably better at it than many men and women, but there are many men and women who are better at it than me. Contra to what the producers of BBC Breakfast and the Mayor of Triberg may think, the BBC ran an item earlier this year that suggested women are better at it than men. No doubt another study would say the opposite. What none of these “popular” studies talks about is the role of practice, which probably has the greatest influence; these adventures in research appear to be there merely to stoke cheap controversy.

BBC Breakfast didn’t make matters any better with their vox pops: some men proclaimed loudly that they were much better at parking than women, even if their other half was within earshot. One gentleman in a Land Rover stated his wife was superior to him. Another woman stated that women were better at it. I was glad when the item ended and moved on to security at the Olympics or the lack thereof.

I generally don’t write about sexism as it is not something I “feel on my skin”: as a man, it would be ridiculous for me to suggest that somehow I know precisely what it’s like to experience such discrimination on a day to day basis, or that I fully comprehend the pressures that society puts on women. I have sympathy for the idea that men can’t ever be true feminists precisely because of this gap in knowledge. I believe I have an inkling, little more: for example, I imagine that the waif-like body images that one gets just from watching television or reading the newspaper must make women feel as if they have to adhere to some impossible ideal. It’s no wonder bulemia, anorexia and the like are endemic. I see an item like the one about parking and imagine that a lot of people were just as indignant as I was.

Cup of CoffeeAs I sat there and finished up my coffee, I thought of my new niece, who will shortly be one month old. I can’t fully know what it will be like for her to grow up in modern Western society, but one quality I hope she will possess is a healthy sense of disbelief when other people try tell to her about her limitations. Her dad is fantastic at driving and parking, her mother is a confirmed petrol head who wants to acquire a bright orange Dodge Challenger: there’s no reason to believe she hasn’t inherited their propensities. There aren’t as many women in technology as men; but if that’s where my niece’s interests lay, there’s no reason for her not to go for it. I intend to give her an Meccano set as soon as she’s old enough; her dad and I will teach her how to build her own PC. My aspiration for her is that she grows up to be a feminist, because I hope that she insists on making her own choices in life rather than have the bounds of her imagination confined by societal norms and that she never has to kneel before the wagging finger of disapproval. Perhaps uncles, brothers, fathers and grandfathers can’t be true feminists, but we can assist feminism not just by denouncing the likes of BBC Breakfast programme producers but by also by proclaiming to our nieces, sisters, daughters and granddaughters that the only real confines on ambition are those imposed by the self. The others are constructs which may seem to have the force of reality, but when shown to be mendacious, should be made to dissolve into the morning air.

Breakfast with sexism was an unpleasant way to end the working week. Tomorrow promises much, not least it offers the opportunity to sleep through BBC Breakfast. I suspect my heavy hand will reach out from under the duvet tomorrow morning just after that boundary in time is crossed. It will rest on the nighttable for a moment, then reach for the radio and switch on “Saturday Live”.

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Fifty Shades of Dull

July 11, 2012

Cover of 1st edition Grapes of WrathThe Great Depression and the rise of Fascism aside, the 1930’s was a golden era in many respects. For example, the literary output was first rate: Orwell’s talent was in full bloom, Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” flew off the bookstore shelves. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “The Grapes of Wrath” was the best selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies were printed by February 1940. That same year, it was adapted into a powerful and memorable film starring Henry Fonda: this movie won two Academy Awards in 1941.

More than 70 years on, and trapped in a pernicious recession which resonates with disturbing echoes of Steinbeck’s time, we seem unable to produce cultural riches that possess the same lustre. I look on Twitter, I see discussions online and overhear them elsewhere: the literary work being discussed most of all these days is “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James.

For those who have heard of this book but are unfamiliar with the plot, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a tale of sexual obsession and sado-masochism. The main character is a deranged billionaire named Christian Grey who proceeds to deflower and debase a 21 year old virgin and “total babe” named Ana Steele. In other words, it’s cheap, tawdry pornography which the average bookstore in 1939 would not have deigned to put on its shelves. Indeed, the concept is riddled with clichés: the scandalous man of means is hardly new, the dewy eyed young woman who has her innocence robbed from her is an idea that goes back to Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress”. Yet, this is the work that is being bought in such vast quantities that it makes the Grapes of Wrath’s once impressive figures seem a mere pittance by comparison.

Why? My other half pointed out that its popularity could be rooted in the attractions of simple escapism: we need a break from the humdrum and exotic and salacious tales help release us from the mundane and often painful realities of living in a diminished era. She also suggested that it could have something to do with an absence of Thirties’ stoicism: in the past, people were more willing to accept fate and look it in the eye. Thanks to consumerism and marketing, we now all believe “because you’re worth it” that we should live the lives of celebrities. We are all geniuses too, why aren’t we recognised for it? Face the grimy realities of living in a 2 up, 2 down semi in Basildon or Trenton, New Jersey? Unlikely: much better to see oneself as a “total babe” or a billionaire who can get away with anything. After all, this better suits the self-image we have been promised, sold and for which we are trapped into a terrible repayment.

But look back at “The Grapes of Wrath”: it is sublime precisely because it holds up a mirror to ordinary human beings and shows their real virtues and faults, both their kindness and propensity to violence, their ignorance and enduring wisdom. Fifty Shades does none of this; furthermore, it brings the spectre of social decline to the fore. Shock entertainment and its need to resort to ever greater stimuli can signify that a society is cracking. The spectacles at the Roman Colosseum grew ever more shocking as the public grew inured and the polity creaked. Two gladiators fighting each other to death wasn’t sufficient: the Emperor Trajan apparently celebrated his Dacian victories in 108 AD by employing 10,000 gladiators. Wild beasts tore each other and people to shreds merely to amuse; Trajan utilised 11,000 animals to supplement the gladiators. The Victorian author Charlotte Mary Yonge captured the spirit of this accumulative degeneration in her “Book of Golden Deeds”, published in 1864:

Sacred vestals, tender mothers, fat, good-humored senators, all thought it fair play, and were equally pitiless in the strange frenzy for exciting scenes to which they gave themselves up, when they mounted the stone stairs of the Coliseum.

Considering this history, a young girl being beaten by a sadistic billionaire to achieve perverted ends may seem mild, yet it is not tame in comparison to what we previously considered art.

It’s also not particularly exciting. The true thrill and beauty of sexual relations need not be solely contained in its culmination, but in the promise of it, the point at which all outcomes are possible. Furthermore, it need not be considered the sole preserve of the supremely rich or particularly alluring. It’s plausible to have a potentially erotic scenario that occurs between people who are not necessarily attractive in a setting that is normally considered dull.

Accountancy in ActionPicture a firm of accountants somewhere in a Northern English city: the building is from the 1970’s, it’s box-shaped, with dark grey concrete and perfectly rectangular windows. The panes haven’t been replaced for some time, and many years of being pelted by city rainwater prevent them from ever glistening again. The grey skies which prevail mean that shadows dominate the narrow street on which the edifice stands. There is a hint of diesel exhaust in the air; pools from early morning rainfall have accumulated on the pavement. Inside, the offices are open plan: the desks are made of chipboard, fronted by peeling brown veneer. There is an aroma of instant coffee and milky tea. Focus, if you will, on two accountants, one male, one female, sitting with their desks facing each other. The man is in his late 40’s and wearing an ill-fitting dark grey suit from Marks and Spencer, his shoulders stooped and slumped from many years of leaning over his computer. He is negotating his surrender to baldness; his blonde and grey hair is cropped closely and rings a growing bare patch on the top of his head. His complexion is pasty; his brown eyes are a stark contrast to his pale visage. His gold wire frame glasses slide down his nose as he dips his head to look at a set of figures. He has a tendency to stroke his thick moustache with the length of his right index finger as he examines the numbers. He has lost weight recently: he also twirls his wedding ring around and around in endless loops. A pity that his wife didn’t live to see him make such progress, if consuming only packages of Super Noodles as an evening repast can be called that. He doesn’t see that his gold and red patterned tie, the only spot of colour in his wardrobe, has a slight oil stain from some chips he consumed for lunch.

However, his colleague at the desk opposite notices. She too is in her late 40’s. She has dyed her hair repeatedly with products bought in the beauty aisle at Tesco, going for blonde highlights in her auburn hair which are never quite ash enough. She too wears grey, a smart, better fitting suit, which covers her somewhat plump and ample figure. She wears glasses as well, her blue eyes having diminished in sight due to many long hours spent bent over ledgers, both electronic and paper. Her glasses however, have a thick black frame. She presses Page Down repeatedly on her keyboard trying to get to the pertinent information. Her thick lips pucker slightly as she finds an incorrect figure. She looks across to her colleague; she sees he is locked in concentration. The chips at lunch left a mark, however. She has a packet of wipes in her drawer, they say they’re good for spills and stains on their bright green wrapper: perhaps she ought to offer one?

Now envisage a boss coming up to them; he is completely bald, and his head shines as brightly as his smile. His shirt is white with a thin red pinstripe. He is jolly and has the girth to go with it, a victim of too many sandwiches consumed at his desk.

“Nigel, Nora,” he says in a jovial tone. Both Nigel and Nora look up.

“Come into my office,” he beckons. They cast a quick glance at each other and stand up. This is not unfamiliar to them as they’ve often been tasked with working together on some tricky assignment. Nigel adjusts his shoulders back and thinks of the time when they had to wind up a company whose director absconded with a substantial amount of money. Nora had traced where the money had gone. The police had done the rest. He recalls how she dressed when she had to go to court: was it the same grey suit she’s wearing now? No, it was with a faint pinstripe, and the skirt was a bit higher, stopping at just below the knee. Grey stockings, yes. She wore grey stockings which clung to the curve of her calves, the seam forming a perfect outline.

Nigel’s breath catches slightly.

Nora thinks of another case when Nigel was working late into the night. She had to get home to Geoff and the kids who all had runny noses and fevers and so he stayed behind long after the sun set and the main office lights had been turned off. As she wiped small faces and made chicken soup, she thought of him sitting there, desk lamp switched on, computer screen glowing, that same grey suit jacket still slumped on his shoulders. He wears that suit rather a lot, she muses. Or does he have multiples of the same one? She doesn’t know how to ask.

They go into the boss’ office and sit at the two blue fabric and aluminium office chairs positioned in front of their superior’s desk. The boss has a red cricket ball sitting next to the computer monitor and a small statuette of a cricketer in what looks like bronze, swinging a bat. A faded picture of a county cricket side, lovingly cut out of a local newspaper is Sellotaped to wall behind him. The boss sits in a black leather chair which is set quite low, so the desk seems bigger than what it actually is.

“N squared,” the boss says, smiling. His little joke. Nigel and Nora working together: “N squared,” the boss thinks. Nigel and Nora both suppress the urge to shrug.

“I’ve got a big job for you to do,” the boss continues. He then speaks about another company going into liquidation due to the recession and that its affairs need to be wound up. Nigel tries to suppress a bitter taste in his mouth; he wonders if butchers feel something similar in an abattoir when they see the next animal that is to be killed and cut up. Nora hangs on every word waiting for the name of the company; Geoff says that his job is in trouble and that she is probably going to have to pick up the slack for him. It doesn’t matter that much, he was earning minimum wage anyway and barely able to help with the grocery bills. The big blue ceramic jar they keep on top of the refrigerator to hold spare change has long been empty anyway. Nevertheless, the thought of Geoff sitting around all day wearing that tired taupe cotton bathrobe and watching morning television causes her stomach to tighten. She looks at Nigel; he seems calm.

“You probably want to know the name of the firm,” the boss continues.

Nigel nods. “It’s Rothglen Limited.”

Nora exhales quietly. Not this time.

“Is she OK,” Nigel wonders. Nora bears a lot of signs of worry: he sees the bags under her eyes, the way her hands shake slightly whenever she takes a cup of tea or coffee into her hand. There’s a slight smudge of pale peach face makeup on her starched white collar. She’s got a bit of a cold. Nevertheless, the perfume she’s wearing is as pleasant as ever: citrus, somewhat sharp, it doesn’t smell expensive, perhaps something picked up on sale at Boots around the corner, but it mixes well with her body chemistry.

“No, no,” he thinks, “don’t think about that.”

He studied chemistry while at university and thinks of elements interacting in a test tube, bubbling and fizzing. He tries not to, but looks out of the corner of his eye at her profile. The curve of her neck is really quite beautiful, her hair rather delicately frames it.

No, no, don’t think about that.

Nora wonders, “Is he looking at me?” The boss is nattering on, his jowls quivering as he speaks, his words trying to carry an elegance that they cannot bear. Nigel could be elegant however. What was it that he said in her last birthday card? Something about familarity breeding contempt most of the time, but when it came to working with her, the direct opposite was the truth. The handwriting was slanted, shaky, not the same confident swoops and curves he used to sign off official letters.

She turns her eyes to cast a glance at him. Nigel switches his gaze back to the boss.

Hmm, he was looking, she thinks. The possibility that he cares for her has turned over in her mind a few times. No, he’s not conventionally attractive. For God’s sake would he sit up straight and stop bending over his computer. But she guesses that since his wife died there has been no one to tell him that.

Nigel swallows hard. Damn, the boss is impressed by the sound of his own voice. The brief has been explained; the boss is trying to just make his own superiority and brilliance clear. Nigel twists slightly in his seat and sighs. When Mary died, the bed became quite cold. He awoke in the morning to only his own warmth and the sound of Radio 4 echoing “Farming Today” in the darkness. The air in the house is musty. He hasn’t bothered to take down the textured wallpaper. The television in the bedroom was broken; he hasn’t replaced it. The last time he recalled watching it was after he and Mary had made love and they watched a film as her head lay on his chest, her breathing first in gasps and then slowly calming down. The film was forgettable; their scents combined, heat rising from their embrace, her shut eyes, shaven head and smile touching her coral pink lips were not. Oh God.

Nigel chokes. Nora notices. His hands are in tight fists on his knees. She’s seen him like this before: it happens generally when work’s pace diminishes. He must be remembering. His eyes are glassy. Can’t the boss stop now?

“I have every confidence in your ability to do this,” the boss continues, “N squared, you’re the best team for the job.”

No, he’s not done. Should she? As she looks, she can see a slight tear forming at the corner of his eye. She looks at the boss. No, he won’t see; he’s too busy talking about himself.

Yes. She reaches out her hand and places it on top of Nigel’s.

The gesture is a shock. But Nigel has touched Nora before; they’ve got a little habit of giving each other a handshake after a job well done. “Well done, Nigel,” she says, a bright smile on her face. “Well done, Nora,” he replies, smiling in kind. He thinks he hugged her once at the office Christmas party, he was very drunk on cheap ASDA Cava; he recalls her body locking into his, the momentary warmth, the feeling of comfort, an awkward pause, then the turn away.

How does she know what I’m thinking, he wonders. Her grip tightens.

“Should I?”, he wonders. What about Geoff and the kids and her life and all the permutations and promises? Is this crossing some sort of boundary?

Thought slips. He turns his hand over and claps hers.

She first wonders if it’s a gentle admonition. He then spreads his fingers open, hers interlocking with his, the palms touching.

No, it’s not a rebuke. They both tighten their grip.

If one pulls back from this scene, the larger picture is as follows: two accountants, one a widower, one in a marriage that is stumbling but not terribly unhappy, care about each other and possess all the vital ingredients for a passion. In a conventional sense, they are not attractive, but they are attracted to each other and potentially this makes their passion work. I suggest this is how most romances develop, and thus is much more relatable than dreams of some hopelessly glamorous or rich partner. Furthermore, by making this more realistic, themes of our era have a chance to seep in: for example, in response to the mention of a firm being liquidated, Nigel’s thought is that he is a mere butcher in the abattoir of the economy. But this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey; we don’t want to talk about this. We want to be seen to be dazzling, not ordinary, rather than see the dazzling in the ordinary. I dare say, we can do better, if only our thoughts can run to the wonderful that can be found even the humblest of settings.

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Frail Convenience

July 9, 2012

A Cold ShowerThe blue LED display on the boiler flashed the letter “F” and then “L” and then “F” again; the sequence then repeated. I sighed. It was late at night, there was no hot water in the house, and this message wasn’t promising at all. I looked it up on the internet: the electrical element which causes the burner to spark into life had failed. I checked the time: 1 AM. Sunday had just crossed the border into Monday. No, I thought, there wouldn’t be any fixing this now. I climbed into bed not too long afterwards and fell asleep, unconsciousness allowing me to forget what kind of day was to come.

The next morning dawned much colder and greyer than seems apropos for July. The sun dappled memories of my youth suggest that early summer is a time of convenient night time rainstorms, so that the earth awakes the next morning fresh and renewed. The rainwater on the lawn should glisten in the sunlight; birds and butterflies should take wing, impatiens should be in bloom with blossoms of red, pink and white. Warmth should be a given. Not here, not now. I cast a look out my back window and saw my laundry swaying on the clothesline, thrice rinsed by heavy storms over the weekend. The fresh ground coffee and vitamins and whole wheat toast smeared with orange marmalade did little to awaken me. I then stepped into the bathroom and realised I needed a shave. “F” then “L” then “F”: I remembered. This would be rather chilly. I ran the tap and half heartedly waited for the water to warm up, hoping for a miracle. “F” then “L” then “F”: I mused at how we take such conveniences for granted. We wake so gently, to coffee and warm water and the breakfast news that any change or roughening of morning’s edges comes as a terrible shock. I splashed the cold water on my face and shaved; it was not unpleasant.

What was more difficult was having to shed my clothes and climb into a shower with only cold water available. My working environment has its demands: one never knows who is going to pay a call. The last CEO of my company was noted for visiting at unexpected times; this may be a tradition continued by her successor. I have been yanked into meetings with important partners of the company without any warning. In other words, it wouldn’t do for me to be unshaven and unwashed; the era in which was normal for the average person to have dirt under the fingernails and a weekly bath whether one needed it or not is long gone. I regarded the crystalline cascade coming down from the shower nozzle for a moment, took a deep breath and stepped into its path.

I try not to swear if I can help it. The first word that sprang to mind was “bracing”; the icy water reminded me of how my other half sometimes chills her hands on a cold drink bottle and places them directly on my back, saying that they are the “hands of doom”. In this case, the frozen grip was all encompassing, as if warmth was at the core of my body and the icy water was trying to push it into an ever more cramped space. I washed my hair and body quickly; my heart pounded. I stepped out, rubbed myself down with a fluffy white towel. I cast a glance at myself in the bathroom mirror: the visage that returned my gaze was not a happy one.

“Well,” I thought, “at least I’m fully awake.”

We take so much of our lives for granted and are genuinely disturbed when something upon which we rely suddenly disappears. The loss of hot water and heat was a physical shock. Towards the end of June, I lost all landline services with my phone and my family couldn’t phone me via that means, which was annoying. I still get irritable when my internet connection drops. I rely on my ability to go to ASDA or Morrisons and find that the shelves are stocked full of food. We expect systems to be robust and that our lives, cossetted and convenient as they are, will go on. Indeed, we think that they will get even better, thanks to constant improvements in technology.

Roman Bath RuinsI can’t help but think of the ruins of Roman baths I saw in Turkey this past April: the stones had cracked due to age and excavation; it was possible to discern how the building was put together. There were brick pillars beneath the floor of the warm baths. This created a space beneath the base of the pool. Hot air was pushed through this gap in order to ensure the water was a comfortable place to be. No doubt the Romans who used those facilities had days when the fuel wouldn’t ignite and every pool was a frigidarium. It’s likely their excellent road network probably had “bad hair days” too: sometimes messages and parcels would get lost along the Appian Way. But like us, they expected technology to provide progress too. However, their society collapsed into the Dark Ages, a time when ignorance, squalor and barbarity became the norm. It’s a reminder: the warm and gadget filled houses which we live in are but a frail bark which shields us from the forces of nature. We have what we have due to complex arrangements which we try not to think about too much, lest we become aware of their fragility. To demonstrate this, it’s worth performing this mental experiment: what would happen if suddenly we ran out of oil?

The immediate answer for most is, “Oh well, I wouldn’t be able to fuel my car.” Yes, but also petrochemicals are a basic ingredient in chemical fertilisers, so farmers wouldn’t be able to grow as many crops. Lorries wouldn’t be able to deliver whatever produce they were able to grow or any other goods: everything from cans of Branston baked beans to packages of spaghetti won’t appear on shelves. We also would lose our ability to make plastics. International commerce would stop as nothing could be shipped or delivered. A lot of homes run off of oil heat: their boilers would run out of fuel. In essence, pull out this one dependency, and it is admittedly a large one, and what we know as the economy completely collapses. Society would likely disintegrate along with it, as we would each be trying to grab hold as much of our old lives as we possibly could.

This is an extreme example: the end of oil supplies is not immediately imminent, although some scientists have suggested we have hit a point at which the amounts we can extract will begin to fall away. Nevertheless, we have time to adjust and adapt. Still, collapse can take generations to play out: consult the histories of Rome, look at the broken stones of their cities and faded inscriptions upon what once was their proud edifices, and think of what came after. We may have time, but as a species we have a bad habit of wasting time, and by the time we realise we have no time to waste, it tends to be too late. The lights are flashing; the writing is on the wall. We should perhaps stop focusing on how powerful or empowered we are, and consider our basic frailty and fragility. Of course the world will go on even if our present order does not; but we need to ask if what would follow is the kind of world that we actually want.

A long time ago, I went to see the historian Dominic Lieven give a talk at the University of London; he spoke passionately about one theme in particular. He stated that there was no school of history more “stupid” than one which suggested that some event was inevitable; he spoke in relation to Edward Hallett Carr’s assertion that what occurred in the Soviet Union was due to some historical necessity. Rather, Lieven urged us all to consider “contingency”, the fact that things can be different. I tend to think that collapse is inevitable, but inevitable is not the same as necessary: we will accrue mistakes that will eventually lead to collapse, but that day can be put off by the choices we make today. Frailty should spur us on to consider our options rather than continue to sleepwalk.

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Review: “Richard II” starring Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet

July 5, 2012

Ben Whishaw as Richard IIMy Fourth of July was not spent imbibing American patriotism; there were no barbeques or fireworks, no Star Spangled Banner hanging from my window, all of which would have stood in stark contrast to what turned out to be a grey, rainy Yorkshire day. Rather, I experienced two ends of a spectrum of English life. First, I lay in bed for most of the Fourth, ill from a cheap takeaway curry I’d eaten the previous night. The meal, which had seemed tasty and fresh at the time and was additionally seasoned by the late hour and my dozy senses, had transformed during the small hours into what felt like a sizeable mammal that was bustling and gnawing within my innards. Sleep wouldn’t come except in small fits when consciousness finally gave in; nevertheless, the animal twisted like a corkscrew whenever anything near comfort approached. When dawn arrived, my mind demanded diversion.

So, with remote in hand and my head resting on some pillows whose covers were crinkled from my night of struggle, I perused the BBC iPlayer: after not too long a search I found the latest production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” starring Ben Whishaw.

I’ve always respected and admired the Bard: every time I see one his plays I find some gem of truth or sparkling turn of phrase which I carry with me, ever awaiting a moment for optimal deployment. I also think much of life could be improved if Shakespeare’s words were used more frequently. For example, I would relish it if BBC Parliament carried a Macbeth inspired sub-caption during Prime Minister’s Question Time whenever Cameron speaks: “It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. If words are mighty, and indeed they have the power to make or break everything from kings to lovers, then Shakespeare was a supremely powerful man. Yet, I am no expert; I wish I was. I am thus challenged by my ignorance to take up any convenient opportunity to experience his works even when I personally am not up to full strength.

I looked at the programme description both on iPlayer and online: “Richard II” was filmed as part of the new “Hollow Crown” series which will show Shakespeare’s plays in historical sequence starting with Richard II, then proceeding on to Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and finally arriving at Henry V.

Although “Richard II” is regarded as a classic, it should be taken with a grain of salt. Much of it is Tudor propaganda which basically suggests Richard II was a weak and ineffective King whose caprice led to his downfall and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke, a direct antecedent of Queen Elizabeth I. This portrait is partially true at best.

Richard IIThe real Richard was hardly weak: at the tender age of fourteen, he played a key role in ending the Peasants’ Revolt. After William Walworth, the Lord Mayor of London, killed the peasants’ leader Wat Tyler at Smithfields during some tense negotiations, Richard fearlessly rode his horse towards the rebel army. He then shouted “I am your captain, follow me!”: this phrase was taken by the rebels to mean the King had joined them in their fight against the hated aristocracy. Rather, the King meant that they were to do as he said. The latter interpretation won out.

The authentic Richard had other virtues. He was a something of a peacenik compared to his predecessors and a patron of the arts. Westminster Hall was rebuilt during his reign. This emphasis on quieter pursuits than those achieved on the field of battle plus his insistence on strict decorum and descriptions of the delicacy of his appearance led to Shakespeare’s strong suggestion that Richard was homosexual. Given how Richard apparently mourned for his late queen, this is more than likely false.

Nevertheless, if this “history” is not history, it at least can speak about greater themes and inspire us with well crafted verse. We are warmed up with a prelude that suggests we tell “sad stories about the death of kings” and it is said in such a way that it makes one shiver. This production of “Richard II” adds to the power of Shakespeare’s words with pristine tableaux: when we first see Ben Whishaw, he sits full of his own grandeur at the centre of Westminster Hall. He holds the sceptre and orb in a statuesque manner which marks him out from the assembled nobles. Despite his confident demeanour, one immediately doesn’t envy Whishaw’s task, as he has to be the main character in a cast which features Patrick Stewart and David Suchet. Nonetheless, he is the embodiment of Shakespeare’s Richard from the moment we cast eyes on him: finespun, averse to combat, vain, capricious, scheming, more prone to contemplation than action. He is also incompetent: he banishes potential rivals without realising the limits of his power to banish danger. He dallies with male favourites and his inclinations are hinted at by a scene in which he views an artist painting a model standing in for an afflicted Christ. He can turn from despair to exultation to despair again in quick succession, as a proven by powerful scene filmed on the coast of Wales. In his last moments, Richard shows humility, humanity and depth. At no point does Whishaw falter: it is quite likely he will be considered the definitive “Richard II” for some time to come.

This is not to say that Whishaw’s performance obliterates all the others: for example, Patrick Stewart was mesmerising as John of Gaunt, reciting his lines about “this other Eden, demi-paradise…this England” in such a way as to bring tears to the eyes. It was such a pure distillation of genuine patriotism that it made American Independence Day with all its pomp, rhetoric and decorative serviettes seem paltry and overcommercialised.

Others fare just as well: David Suchet, as the Duke of York, is clear, firm and precise. Rory Kinnear as Henry Bolingbroke is the obvious hero and as a result, perhaps is purposefully less interesting. Even when he dishes out a harsh sentence to two of Richard’s acolytes, namely their immediate beheading, his accompanying speech gives the audience an excuse not to think too badly of him. Indeed, the viewer naturally rallies to him; he seems loyal to a fault and only breaks with his oaths when Richard pushes him to it. Perhaps Shakespeare’s great talent, along with Kinnear’s, is to give depth to a character who seems so straightforward. After all, Bolingbroke’s efforts end up with Richard deposed and martyred and himself as King; how much, the audience is left to wonder, was artifice, and how much was supposed to be the true Bolingbroke? Or was it that ambition and opportunity are very powerful catalysts?

It’s rare that one can look at a television programme or play and think there wasn’t anything wrong with it: there’s generally something that can be fixed or improved. Most writers are afflicted with the curse of dissatisfaction: there’s no rest. Like a gnawing, twisting animal residing in one’s innards, a belief persists that any work can always be made better, the words can flow more easily, the characters can be made more interesting or express themselves more clearly. Not this time: the play is perfectly written, the characters are perfectly drawn, and in this production, the scenes are perfectly set and the actors were perfectly chosen. In other words, it’s not only outstanding, it’s immaculate.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a fiancée, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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