Archive | September, 2013


25 Sep

Next year, 2014, we will be commemorating the centenary of the First World War. Most commentators agree that it was a terrible waste of millions of lives on both sides of the conflict. It was war on an unprecedented industrial scale. Some claim, with justification that the mass slaughter and destruction that ensued was nothing less than a catastrophe.
One would think that after such a horrific event, lessons would have been learnt and the powers that be would have made sure that it was never repeated. After all, wasn’t this supposed to be “the war to end all wars”? Yet the League of Nations failed in it’s efforts to replace fighting with talking, and just 20 years after the treaty that ended the First World War, the Second World War broke out. It was really the First World War, part 2, as the losers of the first conflict sought to get their own back on the winners and alleviate their grievances. If it had been on the big screen ( as it was many times, later), World War 2 would have had all the ingredients of a classic revenge movie. So, another nightmare ensued with millions more lives wasted in the new slaughter and all that capped by the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Concentration camps.
Surely this double dose of death and suffering would have put the human race off war for ever? Unfortunately, surprisingly and shockingly, the wars have kept coming. The United Nations has proved just as weak and ineffective as its predecessor the League in preventing conflict and preserving peace. What is wrong with people? Why is brutality and murder still seen as the main “solution” to our problems and disputes, rather than negotiation and arbitration? I hate to suggest this, but could it be that instead of abhorring and denouncing violence, many of us are actually fascinated, or even mesmerised by it?
Even a casual look at our entertainment industry reveals that much of it is steeped in violence. I don’t play video games but cannot help noticing that many of them involve simulated killing. This industry generated sales of £42billion in 2012, and many of its games are based on violent scenarios where one is: at war, committing a crime or hunting down criminals. New releases of such games often attract massive, midnight queues. “Grand Theft Auto V” for instance, sold £500 million worth of copies in one day, vindicating one reviewers confident prediction that ” this game will sell by the blood-filled bucket load.” I don’t know about you, but I find this very depressing. The player, poising as a ruthless criminal, has to execute up to 6 large, armed heists employing: “melee attacks” ( whatever they are), firearms, weapons and explosives to fight enemies. The names of other popular games — “Call of Duty”, “Killzone” and “Battlefield” — reveal their violent and warlike content. Not much recollection of the tragedy of war here. I wonder if any of the players pause, in the midst of their simulated killing spree, to reflect on the mass slaughter and suffering of the two World Wars or their successors in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Congo and the rest?
The American Psychological Association has concluded that violent video games are significantly associated with “increased aggressive behaviour and thoughts.” Critics claim that they desensitise players to violence, reward players for simulating violence and teach children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. They seem to have a very strong case. Those who defend the games say they are an important safety valve for natural aggression. However, even this argument seems to admit that violence is an inherent part of human nature and the debate is about how we deal with it.
The video games industry boasts that it is eclipsing the cinema in terms of revenue and participation figures. Cinema in turn seems to be aping the violent nature of its rival. Increasingly we are presented with so-called “Blockbusters.” Plot, proper characterisation, meaningful dialogue and good acting are sacrificed to make way for: fights, battles, murders, car chases and explosions on an increasingly epic scale. Steven Spielberg has recently complained that subtlety and sophistication in film making is giving way to spectacle and action as Hollywood courts the popularity of video games. Modern film makers often present violence as an acceptable and “normal” form of entertainment. The James Bond franchise ( now little to do with Ian Fleming), is a prime example of this trend. I remember one reviewer commenting with apparent approval, that in “Casino Royale”, a film praised for its more gritty realism, Bond ( Daniel Craig) has to change his white tuxedo after the killing spree of the opening scene, because it is drenched in blood. I am repelled by such films especially as they are presented as light, “escapist” entertainment. I don’t mind violence when it is presented in a proper context and in a film trying to get across a serious message such as “Schindler’s List”. However as far as the Bond Films, the “Die-hard” films, the Jack Reacher films and the rest, I am in the minority by a long way, judging by their takings at the box office.
One notable director, famous for his use of violence as entertainment is Quenton Tarantino. His last film ” Django Unchained”, highly praised as presenting a new angle on the subject of slavery in America, is largely about a black, bounty hunter murdering one person after another in graphic detail on the big screen. One reviewer noted that whenever Django had a problem, he solved it by killing someone. What type of message does that give out to impressionable young people? This film was watched and enjoyed by millions and was actually nominated for an Oscar. It seems that acts of violence, so terrible when they occur in real life, are accepted on screen as an entertaining diversion.
I went to see a Tarantino film once. In the 1990’s his “Reservoir Dogs” was regarded as a cult movie, constantly brought back to my local arts cinema in Newcastle by popular request, and playing to packed houses. It’s about an armed bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. I got carried away by all the hype and went along to find out what all the fuss was about. After about half an hour I started to experience an increasingly loud buzzing sound in my ears. I had a dry feeling in the back of my throat and then began to feel nauseous. I could then hear my heart thudding loudly. This was my body’s reaction to the sickening scene of drawn-out sadism that was happening in front of me. Nobody else seemed to be affected — they all carried on eating their crisps or passing around the sweet packets, while at the same time being glued to the screen. I had already endured a robber half bleeding to death but now I was witnessing a tense and nasty torture scene. A policeman had been captured and tied up in a chair. He was now being threatened and taunted by a psychopath wielding a long cut-throat razor, who was apparently preparing to slice off his ear. I never found out what happened, because, unable to stand it any longer, I walked out. I’d decided that such bloodthirsty sadism was not my idea of a Saturday night’s entertainment. However, the rest of the audience remained engrossed and I later got into trouble with my girlfriend for spoiling her evening!
I remember the uproar caused by the shockingly violent climax of Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in the late 1960’s. The protagonists are strafed with a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. We see bullets ripping into their flesh in horrific slow motion and their bodies contorting into grotesque shapes. Many people walked out, some were sick and many others protested or boycotted it. I watched what was actually a very good film in my opinion, and survived the ending even though it was pretty shocking. Other films of the late 60’s and early 70’s such as “The Wild Bunch”, “Straw Dogs” and “Soldier Blue” all courted controversy because of their scenes of extreme violence. They were generally seen by film critics though, as signs of a welcome relaxation of censorship. This time the reviews were enough to warn me off. It was not my idea of enjoyment. Another famously violent film of that era was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess. It was actually withdrawn from public release by the director himself because of all the controversy. I watched it at the time and stuck it out as I knew it had a serious message to transmit. However, I recall being disturbed by the scene of a violent gang of youths stylistically beating up an old couple in their own home to the music of Beethovan. I also remember a tramp being savagely beaten. I don’t think the more sensitive, older version of myself would enjoy watching such scenes today.
Well, over 50 years has passed since those controversies, and graphic horror and violence on the big screen is now commonplace. It’s almost regarded as “normal”. Audiences don’t walk out. Nobody is sick in the aisle. Violence has now become a staple of mainstream, cinematic entertainment. Describing what he considered to be a funny scene in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” ( Jewish hit men hunting down and killing Nazis), a friend of mine concluded with the phrase:” and then the usual mayhem broke out.” What he meant was a horrifying scene ensued, in which we see people being maimed and murdered. He was so casual about this that I realised that violence is not only accepted but expected these days. Audiences feel short-changed if it doesn’t occur. They should have been pleased with this one as I believe Tarantino appeared in it himself — as a scalped Nazi!
I am not trying to claim that violence on film or in a video game necessarily leads to violent behaviour in real life, although I believe there is a distinct possibility of such a cross-over. All I’m trying to highlight is the massive irony: that society condemns loss of life in wars, terrorist attacks or mass shootings by “lone gunmen”, yet, simultaneously laps- up similar scenes of carnage and brutality as a form of light relief.
In literature and television we get more, much more of the same. The British public seem to have an insatiable desire for murder mysteries both on the page and on the screen. Crime novels, often including gruesome murders, make up a huge and extremely popular genre of literature. Every bookshop has a large dedicated section to it. Writers of murder mysteries such as: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, P D James, Ruth Rendall, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin and many others, entertain their readers with their idiosyncratic detectives, convoluted plots, lists of colourful suspects, red herrings and puzzling clues. They vary enormously but the one sure thing in all of these novels is that there will be a murder ( or murders) in their early chapters. Imagine how disappointed their fans would be if no character was killed! The message here is that murders are fun, providing a rich source of pleasure and distraction.
TV programmes, such as “Murder She Wrote” and “Midsomer Murders” have capitalised on the popularity of these whodunnits and reproduced them on screen. I have watched some myself such as Peter Falk’s shambling detective “Columbo” and the Danish crime thriller “The Killing”. I’m not trying to claim the moral high ground here. I often get sucked in. But I’m unable to stomach one after the other. There is even a best-selling board game “Cluedo” ( which I have played many times), which is structured around an Agatha Christie-style country house murder. I wonder how many children playing “Cluedo” actually imagine crushing Miss Scarlett’s skull with the lead piping or stabbing Colonel Mustard in the back? It’s all good “fun” but it’s underpinned by the premise of violence.
I’ve lost count of the number of murder mysteries that have appeared on the British TV screens just this year. Some such as “New Tricks” ( currently BBC 1’s most popular programme), are fairly superficial with the actual violence sanitised or edited out. Others make a point of revelling in the horror, the terror and the shocking details of the murder. In recent months, audiences have been treated to: a serial killer in Northern Ireland sadistically taunting his victims as well as the police ( “The Fall”), an investigation into a dead, desiccated woman who had been left mouldering in an attic for 2 years ( “What Remains”), a man stabbed to death in a dark alley outside a Newcastle night club ( “Vera”), another deranged serial killer terrorising a seaside town ( “Whitecliffe”), a town torn apart by the murder of a teenager ( “Broadchurch”) and so on and so forth. The list is endless. There is even a dedicated TV channel to murder mysteries — “Alibi.” It presents around 19 murders a day, 7 days a week. Where has this voracious appetite for death come from? I have no answer, except to say that human beings are clearly a very violent species, much as they pretend not to be. History shows this very clearly.
Our past is dominated by wars, executions, murders and torture. You don’t need me to list them all. Just recently we have all been rightly appalled by : The Boston Marathon Bombing, the American School shootings and the Kenyan shopping- mall massacre. Yet similar violence is endemic in mainstream entertainment. This entertainment factor is not a new phenomenon. Until about 1870, crowds gathered on London’s Tyburn Hill to watch and revel in public executions. It was possibly when state killings stopped taking place in public, that lurid crime stories in pamphlets and novels began to become very popular. People didn’t want to be denied their regular dose of blood and death. In an earlier age King Charles I was beheaded before a vast crowd in front of Whitehall Palace. ( in January, 1649.) As the gory, severed head of the former king was held up, many surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs in royal blood in order to have a souvenir.
Yes, history saturated in blood but so, sadly is our world of entertainment. Watching the occasional good quality crime drama is fine of course, but I think this constant, relentless obsession with violence and death is pretty disturbing. I certainly don’t regard it as normal. Why do so many people regard murder as fun?



5 Sep

The southern approach to Dundee is dramatic. Scotland’s fourth city straddles the north bank of the mighty Firth of Tay. My train from Edinburgh, after pottering through the gentle hills of Fife, was suddenly confronted with a huge expanse of water. To get to the city on the far bank we had to cross a long, slightly precarious looking metal bridge over 130 years old.
As I gazed out over the grey, choppy waters, I couldn’t help thinking of the terrifying event that overtook nearly a hundred luckless people at this very spot in the winter of 1879. The first Tay Rail bridge, the predecessor of the one I was now on, had collapsed in a fierce storm taking a whole train with it. It plunged into the deep, cold waters claiming the lives of its crew and 75 passengers. It was the night of December 28th, 1879. The bridge, initially hailed as a great engineering triumph, had only been standing for 18 months. It was a terrible accident that sent shock waves through the nation. Although I crossed the Tay on a calm late summer’s day, I couldn’t help thinking of that tragic event 134 years earlier and all the people who perished. What would it have been like to have been plunged into the depths of those freezing waters? However, as I looked around at my fellow passengers, playing with their I-phones, listening to their music or reaching for their luggage, I don’t suppose any of them gave this historical tragedy even a moment’s thought. I suppose it’s a History teacher’s thing — to be constantly tangling with ghosts from the past. It adds an extra dimension to travel, even though it leads to the occasional chill down the spine.
The long bridge started to curve to the right as we neared the far shore and the city came into close view. The estuary I had just traversed may have brought tragedy but its waters have also been the basis of Dundee’s success as a city and a port. In the 19th century the quayside was a hive of activity. Ships constantly came and went, bringing raw materials from the Empire and exporting the finished products around the world from the city’s thriving factories. Shipyards were constantly busy and Dundee’s whaling fleet was the largest and most successful in Britain.
Now all these traditional industries have declined and died, and the buzz-word in the city is “regeneration.” Like Glasgow before it, Dundee is trying to rise, phoenix-like from the ashes of its past and re-invent itself as a cultural, tourist and technological centre. So, in this, my first visit, I was too late to see much of the old Dundee. It has been demolished! Stepping out of the railway station, I was greeted with the groaning of bull-dozers and earth-movers and the sight of mountains of rubble. Bright, optimistic hoardings advertised the glittering Dundee water-front of the future, but I couldn’t help thinking of those ghosts again. Who had worked or lived in the buildings that were now reduced to piles of bricks? What would it have been like to stand on this spot a century ago — to see a ship being launched into the river, or bales of Bengal jute being carted off to the waiting mills or to witness the sad sight of a slaughtered whale being towed in like a huge, inert island of blubber? All this has now gone, disappeared into dust.
I negotiated the ring road and dragged my case up towards what survives of the old city centre, leaving the dust and din behind. Quite a lot remains of the Victorian city thank goodness. Some streets have been demolished to make way for bland shopping malls ( I counted about 3 large ones) but numerous proud, stone built churches, shops, tenements and offices remain. In a way it was like a smaller version of Glasgow, with it’s fine Victorian heritage. In these streets I would find the answers to a list of intriguing questions. Why had this place been called “She-Town”? What were the “Three J’s”? Why were many older female Dundonians deaf or hard of hearing? Why were many citizens of Dundee born in Calcutta? Why was there a statue of Desperate Dan on the edge of the city’s main square? Why are there statues of penguins in at least two prominent locations? Finally, why has this initially dour place been breathlessly dubbed “City of Discovery”?
The last two questions are the easiest to answer. As soon as you exit the railway station you see signs for “The Discovery” Just one minute away, in its own dry dock, is Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Polar research ship “SS Discovery” It’s a handsome, 3-masted, steam-assisted vessel built in Dundee in 1901 to take Scott and his men to the Antarctic. The research trip was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. Dundee was chosen to build the ship because of its experience in building whalers that had sailed to the far reaches of the freezing southern Atlantic Ocean. Scott and his men were later to perish in a later expedition ( in 1908 I think) in the Dundee whaler “Terra Nova”. They tragically died on the walk back from the South Pole after losing the race to the Norwegian explorer Amundson. However the earlier 2 year trip on Discovery in 1901-02 was a big success despite the ship being trapped in the crushing ice during the Antarctic winter when temperatures plummeted to -28 degrees C on board. After several later incarnations “Discovery” became a training ship on the Thames before being restored to how it was in the 1920’s and returning to the city where it was built. It is now the standard bearer of Dundee’s attempted renaissance. Alongside it, on Discovery Point is an excellent and absorbing interpretation centre, its entrance flanked by penguins and a large photo of Captain Scott. A visit, although chilling in more ways than one, is a fascinating and worthwhile experience. Models, paintings and haunting black and white photos from the expedition transport one to that far away time and far away place. It was back to the spirits of the past.
The other main reason for my visit to Dundee was to visit the Verdant Works, a museum created out of an original 19th century Jute mill. Jute is one of the aforementioned “Three J’s” that put Dundee on the map in the hey-day of the British Empire. It is a natural textile, cheap to produce, stronger and more versatile than cotton. The manufacture of Jute products such as: sacking, rope, sail-cloth, boot linings, carpets, tents, sand bags, roofing felts etc., were to bring great prosperity to Dundee in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the main centre of Jute manufacture in the world, Dundee gained one of its nicknames : “Juteopolis”.
The city was already heavily involved in linen weaving. It had the ship yards to build the big, fast ships that brought the jute fibre from India. The final ingredient was provided by the whaling fleet. Whale oil was vital for softening the hard, dry fibres and making them workable. This combination was the basis of Jute’s success in this Scottish city. On top of this were the world markets for jute products that were opening up all the time and made reachable by Dundee’s large fleet of merchant ships. The city became the jute capital of the world. The first bales arrived at Dundee’s quay in 1820. By 1883, over 1 million bales were being unloaded. At the end of Victoria’s reign there were over 100 Jute mills employing 50,000 people. Fortunes were made by the mill owners or “Jute Barons”, whose luxury mansions now line Perth Road to the west and Broughty Ferry, the seaside resort to the east.
However, as in many industrial revolution towns, the contrast between the lives of the factory owners and their workers was stark and vast. Work in the jute mills was: noisy, dangerous and tedious. Hours were long and wages very low. Most of the mill workers were women and children because they cost less to employ. Many men stayed at home while their wives went out to work. This gave rise to Dundee’s other nickname — ” She Town.” It also explains why many older women in the city are partially deaf. It’s due to the incredible din from the machines which they had to endure day after day, year after year. Lily, a guide at the museum, who had worked in the mill for 20 years, told me that she and her fellow workers had to communicate through sign language because the clattering machine noise made it impossible to hear anyone speak. She put a machine on to demonstrate. It was deafening. Her eyes glazed over with nostalgia as she talked about her former colleagues and her diseased husband who had also worked at the mill. She seemed more comfortable talking about the past, even though it had been difficult, and admitted to feeling nervous about the modern world with its constantly changing gadgetry. As we talked about times gone by, we were back amongst the ghosts.
Dundee’s jute industry finally fell victim to competition from India itself and later Bangladesh. Costs on the Indian sub-Continent were much lower, so Dundee had the proverbial rug pulled from underneath its feet. Ironically the Indian jute industry was set up by Dundonian engineers and mill managers, lured out there by the higher standard of living that being part of the Raj offered. I listened to recordings of Dundee people who had grown up in Calcutta. It was a privileged life with servants, polo matches and Bridge clubs. Life was hierarchical with women being judged by how high up their husbands were on the management ladder. It was strange standing there in the early 21st century, listening to these distant echoes of the Empire. This is why so many Dundonians have such close connections to Calcutta. By 1900, Calcutta had overtaken Dundee as the World’s largest jute manufacturer.
I stayed room-only in a hotel converted from a wealthy Jute-Baron’s mansion. Every morning I would stroll down Perth Road and have a relaxing breakfast at the “Express-Oh!” café. I ordered porridge of course because I was in Scotland. This was followed by toasted soda bread with Dundee jam or marmalade, washed down with coffee and a free, fresh orange juice. Jam is another of the city’s famous “3 J’s”, but it’s actually marmalade that is the city’s main claim to fame. Marmalade is supposed to have been invented there in the 18th century, although some claim that earlier recipes existed in the 1500’s.
The story goes roughly like this. It all started by chance in the year 1700. A grocer and cake shop owner called James Keiller came across a Spanish ship that had taken refuge from a storm in Dundee harbour. On board was a large cargo of Seville oranges, which Keiller bought large quantities of at a knock-down price. However their bitter taste meant he was unable to sell them, so his wife Janet, came to the rescue by boiling them up with sugar in copper pots to make jars of preserve. She had previously used quinces. The result, the first marmalade, was so popular that the Keillers started putting in regular orders for Seville oranges. Several generations later, in 1797,another Janet Keiller and her son, another James, felt confident enough to build the world’s first marmalade factory. Keiller’s jam and marmalade is no longer manufactured but another local firm, Mackays, still makes the marmalade with more or less the original recipe. This is what found its way to my breakfast table.
The final J is Journalism. The publishing firm D C Thomson still produces hundreds of comics, magazines and independent Scottish newspapers from their HQ in Dundee. This is why Desperate Dan, probably the Dandy’s most famous cartoon character, still strides forth along the top of City Square, hotly pursued by a catapult- wielding Minnie the Minx. It’s a magnet for camera touting tourists and took me back to my childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s when I was an avid reader of the Dandy and the Beano. So this was yet another nostalgic trip — this time into my own personal history.
The “3 J’s” and Scott of the Antarctic make Dundee an interesting place for a city break, especially if you’re a history buff like me. Its grand Victorian architecture and picturesque waterside location add to its attractions. I also enjoyed the foreign films at the arts centre ( the DCA), the football screened in the pubs ( I didn’t have time to visit either of Dundee’s 2 major football grounds) and the haunting, atmospheric old graveyard, The Howff. It made a memorable visit, discovering the heritage of “She Town” now rebranded as the “City of Discovery.”