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Encounters with Russia.

23 Jun

I’ve just spent 2 months in Russia, visiting the homes of the very rich and the very poor, listening to monks deliver long religious discourses, eavesdropping on political and philosophical discussions in taverns, getting caught in the middle of violent family disputes, eavesdropping on passionate love affairs, witnessing a murder and attending the subsequent trial. It’s been a long, intensive, traumatic experience. Luckily, I am now back in the calm and familiarity of my English home and the book I’ve been immersed in: ” The Brothers Karamazov” is now resting safely back on the shelf. Reading its  985 closely typed pages was a mammoth enterprise and, at times, an all consuming experience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky didn’t belief in writing little ditties. His novels were invariably on a grand scale, sprawling epics giving a rich slice of life at all levels of 19th century Russian society. He’s very much like a Russian version of Charles Dickens, painting a rich, detailed picture of the human experience. Like Dickens too, Dostoyevsky’s works were published in instalments in newspapers or periodicals. That’s probably why they contain such gripping suspense. He wanted to make sure that his readers would  purchase the next episode. Some wag in a review I read, noted that he got paid by the word, thus explaining why his novels were so long.

The sheer length of “The Brothers Karamazov” explains why I waited until I’d retired before I was brave enough to tackle it. When I was at work I wouldn’t have had the time to read it regularly enough to follow the multiple threads it contained. As a 20 year old student I had attempted to read the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” I gave up just over halfway through the crime. This time it wasn’t the length that daunted me but the frightening, sinister quality of Dostoyevsky’s prose. It got to the point where I was too scared to turn over the page! I abandoned the book and didn’t think about reading anything by him again until a thrilling, chance encounter in the early noughties. In November, 2006, I was lucky enough to go on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city. Opposite our hotel to the south of the city centre , stood an ancient looking Orthodox church surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard. It was in fact the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemetery from the mid eighteenth century. It had been snowing so everything looked pristine white and beautiful. My wife, Chris, and I decided to brave the biting cold and go to explore it. The church was mysterious but fascinating with people bowing to and kissing glistening icons and a bearded monk baptising a crying baby. But it was in the cemetery that the real surprise and thrill came. We wandered past a row of Bolshevik head- stones tucked away to one side. They were topped by red stars and red hammer and sickle motifs. Presumably they were not allowed to rest in the main part of the cemetery because they had been atheists. It was surprising that they were there at all though, as if at the last minute they had decided to hedge their bets. Then we stepped into the heart of the graveyard. It was surrounded by avenues of bare black trees festooned with bunchesof blood-red berries. It looked stark and beautiful in its blanket of snow. What enfolded was a parade of Russian, 19th century celebrities.

First came Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s headstone, quickly followed by two other famous composers: Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Tchaikonsky’s handsome bust was accompanied by two thoughtful angels, one studying a music manuscript. Flecks of snow gathered in her wing feathers and in the folds of her gown. On to her lap someone had placed a bunch of lovely, white narcissi. Borodin’s tomb featured a dazzling art-nouveau mosiac of a page of his music, black notation, a glowing golden background and green and red decoration. We were just marvelling at our surprise find when there it was, the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the celebrated novelist. We stood and stared, forgetting the freezing cold. It was a tall, handsome tomb surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. At its centre was a head and shoulders bust of the great man , sporting a full, flowing beard and a dodgy looking comb- over. Above and below him in gold, Cyrillic script were his name and biographical details, I presumed. Strewn in the snow was a scattering of red carnations. We had just stumbled across the last resting places of 4 of Russia’s most famous sons. For a while, until the cold started to gnaw the tips of my fingers, I stood there mesmerised. I think it was at that moment that I decided to return to Dostoyevsky’s novels at some point, as well as listening  to more Russian classical music. Time to dust down those old vinyls and revisit the classics on the book-shelves.

At first though I ignored Dostoyevsky. Maybe I was still too scared. I had had nightmares for months after putting down “Crime and Punishment.” To me it was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a film I always have to pluck up courage to watch. Instead I took down Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, another epic work. It’s sheer length had made it previously too daunting to tackle. My only previous connection with it had been through the old Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman. ( made in the 1930’s I think.) Most people remember the last scene when the ” heroine” jumps in front of a thundering train. But watching the film seems a lazy way of tackling one of the great works of world literature. The inner world of the book and of the characters cannot adequately be revealed in a moving picture. I’ve always thought this and that’s why I made a point of reading all the novels of Jane Austin instead of just being satisfied with the pretty costume dramas on TV or at the cinema. The same goes for the works of Dickens. One cannot capture the sheer power of his writing by singing along to the catchy tunes of “Oliver” or viewing any of the innumerable TV adaptations of his works. Applying the same logic to Tolstoy, I decided to pick up the book, even though it was so big. I don’t know what all the fuss was about– my translation of Anna Karenin ( mysteriously missing the final “a”) was a mere 853 pages of close text and they flew by in no time. From the first sentence Tolstoy’s wonderfully lucid writing had me in its spell. A book only seems long if it’s boring. It’s dead easy to read a genuine masterpiece. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deliver a critical analysis of the novel in this blog. It probably wouldn’t be very good anyway. I’ll just suffice to quote part of the back cover of my Penguin classic ( translated by Rosemary Edmonds) :” Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vest panorama of contemporary life in Russia and humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.” Like Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy is a supreme master of the psychological novel, delving into the motivations of his characters and their many conflicting facets, with subtle, compelling skill. Yes, I got drawn straight into it,was gripped and fascinated throughout and felt sad and bereft when it finally finished.  Like all very good books, completing it was like losing a close friend. Anna Karenin jumped straight to the top of my all time favourite  novels chart, pushing George Eliot’s marvellous “Middlemarch” down to number 2. Without leaving my armchair I had returned to St Petersburg and Russia. My earlier trip had inspired and enhanced my reading of the great novel. I was now on a roll. I now picked up “War and Peace”, another Tolstoy classic and another truly epic read. Many critics regard this as the greatest book ever written.

I thought “War and Peace” was great. It too has vivid characters and their psychological and emotional worlds are expertly detailed. The epic battle scenes are fascinating too but I think Tolstoy overdid the theorising about history and the fate of humanity. Sometimes he laid it on with a trowel as they say and his frequent philosophising slowed the momentum of the main story. So I didn’t put it at the top of my personal literary hit parade, ( sorry Leo), but it easily secured a spot in the top 20. The book has wonderful characterisation, and  such convincing dialogue that you feel as if you are actually in the room with the speakers. Most of all, it too immersed me in the Russian world, albeit one of over 2 centuries ago. It’s a world that is familiar but strange at the same time. Russia is the largest country in the continent of Europe, yet the majority of its land is in Asia. It’s a paradox. I entered that same intriguing world in my Dostoyevsky readings. To make it all the more mysterious and compelling, it’s a world that has now passed into history following the traumatic revolutions of 1917.

For much of my life I wasn’t allowed to visit Russia. It wasn’t even called Russia. The communists renamed it : The Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviets were the enemies. They were the ones we might have a catastrophic nuclear war with. It was very scary especially during the incredibly tense Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960’s. Russia still is scary. Their recent annexation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are not exactly peaceful or welcome developments. Also the Russian treatment of the Chetchens and other Causasun peoples has been consistently shocking and largely ignored by the west. Putin loved Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” as it gave him the convenient opportunity to harshly suppress and oppress his minority peoples with western approval. All he had to do was label them “terrorists.” It’s not surprising that in their desperation, some of his opponents have turned to terrorism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence sadly breeds violence. And all this has come on top of the many horrific events of Russia’s tragic 20th century — a disastrous First World War, violent revolutions, bloody civil war, communist dictatorship under Lenin and especially Stalin plus others, reigns of terror, political repression, enforced collectivisation and subsequent famine, forced relocation of whole populations, the lethal work camps of the Gulags, the Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Second World War… The list of terrors and tragedies is seemingly endless. It makes Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevsky’s Tsarist Russia seem like a walk in the park.( which it wasn’t of course.) The fact that many Russian novels are so big, long and heavy, merely reflects that nation’s long and heavy history.

Even in our brief visit to St Petersburg in November, 2006, we could feel the heavy weight of Russian history bearing down on our shoulders. St Petersburg, 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, looked superficially prosperous. The roads were crammed with cars, big, glossy shop windows displayed a wide range of luxury goods, and many of its grand historical churches and palaces had been beautifully restored. However, even a brief look at the people, their facial expressions and their body language, was enough to show that all was not well. Most people avoided eye contact and did not even look up. They trudged through the streets or on and off the Metro with bowed heads and slumped shoulders. Most, if you could see them, wore miserable expressions. There were no smiles, and no courtesies in these street encounters. People did not make way as we approached. They just walked straight  at us and it was us who had to give way. It’s easy for tourists from a rich country with a comfortable life style to conclude that Russian people are just plain rude. It’s not as simple as that though. As soon as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, I understood their behaviour a lot better. With all that tragedy and tyranny in their lives, why should they be carefree and happy? The younger ones whom we met in shops and restaurants were more friendly and spoke enough English to break down the language barrier a little. However the younger generation is not weighed down by so many terrible memories. They had not had to survive the horrific Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s for instance or the gross deprivation of human rights experienced under the Soviet regimes. They had not lost loved ones in the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan.      Many older people tragically lost their life savings in the post Communist Yeltsin regime when inflation ran riot and the state’s prized resources were sold off to opportunist businessmen who became obscenely rich overnight. There was a power vacuum and an economic free for all which saw the rise of the notorious Russian mafia. Apparently, when state run industries such as oil, gas and minerals were broken up and privatised, every citizen was given a handful of shares. However these were gobbled up by the oligarchs, who bribed many gullible people with the price of a bottle of vodka and so the few became super rich and the many became desperately poor. A travel companion of mine told me she had lodged in the St Petersburg apartment of an older couple in their late 60’s. They had lost all their savings in the Yeltsin era and were forced to go out to work full time and rent their spare room to western tourists. This was  in the mid 90’s. My friend told me the area where she stayed was dimly lit and shabby, with litter and broken glass . She didn’t feel safe and was always in well before dark. She said it was an interesting but very uncomfortable experience. Meanwhile, mega rich Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, buy up properties in central London, the south of France or Cyprus, swan around in luxury yachts and private planes and buy football clubs such as Chelsea FC to use as their private playthings. At the last count, Abramovich was worth a cool US$9.1 billion. A few years ago someone commented to me : “I wonder how many people are slaving away in Siberian mines to pay Frank Lampard’s wages!” At the time, Lampard was one of Chelsea’s highest earners at £150,000 a week!

So it was not surprising that we encountered gloomy faces and defeatist body language. Many Russians have had their hopes and spirits crushed by circumstances. Life is one big, bitter struggle. That was my impression anyway. The lack of smiling, welcoming faces was disconcerting but it certainly lent a powerful atmosphere to the place and a definite edge to our visit. Yes, we saw wonderful churches and cathedrals, ornate palaces, spectacular squares, picturesque canals, world class art and a wonderful ballet performance. We saw the Winter palace in winter and queued for the Hermitage museum in a raw, freezing -7degrees centigrade, to be eventually rewarded with a dazzling array of masterpieces. St Petersburg is a world class tourist destination. Yet my most abiding memory is of the depressed ordinary people shuffling through the wintry streets. It was not a  totally comfortable experience but that made it all the more fascinating. On our last day there we got mugged in an underpass as if to underline the air of discomfort that hung in the air. A large group of Asiatic- looking men in military uniforms, bumped into us and jostled us for about 30 seconds. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum. When we were spat out at the end I found that my wallet was missing and they had tried to cut the straps of Chris’s rucksack. Luckily we were not hurt, albeit more than a bit shaken, and they only got away with the equivalent of £35 and my Tesco’s card. I hope they found it useful!  Oh, and we also got taken as hostages in the colourfully named Restaurant Rasputin where we ate with friends after the ballet. They would not accept payment by card, demanding cash only. They refused to let us leave until one of us walked back to the hotel cash machine to get the money. A couple of “heavies” suddenly appeared to back up the previously friendly waitress. ( They weren’t really that heavy– I’m only joking.) Still it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

So, I’ve had a rich, interesting interaction with Russia and the Russians over the years. Not all of it has been easy. But it’s a vast, strange and intriguing country and in my reading, music listening, ballet watching and armchair travels, I continue to be fascinated by it.  I’m determined to visit it again and see places beyond St Petersburg which is beautiful but not exactly typical. I have another Tolstoy lined up — “Resurrection!”, plan to explore the piano concertos of Rachmanoff and revisit the plays of Chekov.( The Cherry Orchard is a particular favourite of mIne.) I may even pluck up courage and face up to my old nemesis: “Crime and Punishment.”



23 Feb

Last week I went on a journey into my teenage past. I watched the fourth Sean Connery/James Bond film: “You Only Live twice” on TV, made in 1967. I enjoyed the time travel immensely. It was a huge blast of sixties nostalgia. Yes, it was terribly dated, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was a product of its time and for me it summed up much that was exciting about that decade. This is especially so when I recall my first reaction to the early Bond films and subsequently to Ian Fleming’s spy novels that they were based on. They made a massive impact on the adolescent me.
The first 2 Bond films I saw were “Dr No” and “Goldfinger”, on a double bill at my local Odeon cinema. I was 15 at the time. Up to that point James Bond 007 and Ian Fleming had failed to make any significant impact upon me. I only went to the cinema that night to be with my mates. I was still largely an innocent, naïve child, living a quiet, sheltered life in a provincial town. Up to that point the highlight of my family’s life had been the weekly visit to the Methodist Sunday School and evening service at the chapel. But now, as my adolescent hormones started to kick in, I felt hungry for something different. Already, listening to pop music and watching football had caused more than a few ripples on the surface of my safe but mundane existence. Now, in one electrifying evening at the “flics” I was blasted into an adult world of: danger, suspense, thrills and spills, modern technology, politics, crime, foreign travel, exotic locations, glamour, girls and sex.( well strong hints of it anyway.) That’s no mean achievement for just 3 hours entertainment! My imagination was fired and suddenly life seemed to be full of enthralling possibilities.( even though many of them were to remain mere fantasies and I eventually became a teacher, not a spy.)) Life was no longer the boring, insular existence that I had thought it to be. The Bond films and novels were classic pieces of escapism and they exploded into my life at exactly the right moment — when I was just starting to feel trapped and in a rut. OK — one can criticise them now for their: casual violence, crude sexism and racial stereotyping, but, to the 15 year old version of me, never having had a girlfriend, never having travelled abroad, never having taken a risk or made any forays into the unknown, they represented tremendous EXCITEMENT.
So I went to see all the Bond films of the 60’s ( up to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971) and devoured all the novels and short stories, published by Pan in their cheap paperback form from the local market. They immersed me in an intriguing alternative world, almost a parallel universe compared to my everyday existence. Of course the violence and sex fascinated me, even though Fleming and the film’s producers were masters of the dot, dot, dot. Today, it all seems tame compared to what can be witnessed in many films or books. The violence, including killing, is sanitised, with little blood or drawn out suffering. “Sex” consists mainly of a bit of kissing but the context leaves plenty of opportunity for the imagination to take off. Tame it may seem, but at the time it opened my eyes to a world previously unseen and largely unimagined. On top of this agent 007 also introduced me to: espionage, international relations, the “Cold War”, the “Space Race”, modern technology, gambling, card games, fast cars, smoking ( though I never indulged), drinking and foreign cultures. Fleming’s books were not flat- out action thrillers, consisting mostly of car chases, fights, murders and explosions, like many of the more recent Bond films. Instead they often took their time to describe a sophisticated meal, an exotic cocktail or a complicated card game. They were also set in colourful locations, far away from the grey, damp cold of the austerity Britain of the 1950’s, the era when the first ones were written. Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” in 1952 when rationing in Britain was still a grim, post-war reality and “make do and mend” was still the motto of many. However he set it mainly on the French Riviera and wrote it in his tropical Jamaican retreat: “Goldeneye.” So from the start James Bond represented exoticism and escapism. Later books were to take his readers on armchair excursions to: Turkey and the Balkans ( “From Russia With Love”), Switzerland and the United States (“Goldfinger”), Haiti ( “Live and Let Die”), and Japan ( “You Only Live Twice”), to name but a few. In the film of “You Only Live Twice”, the one I recently viewed again, we see traditional Japanese costumes, ritualistic tea drinking, oriental massage, martial arts demonstrations and a prolonged village wedding ceremony. It’s not all frantic action. In “Live and let Die”, Fleming provides a long discussion about voodoo. It’s not all: crash, bang, wallop or wham, bam, thank-you maam! So, for me at 15, 16 17 and 18, James Bond was an educational, mind-opening experience as well as an adrenaline- filled adventure. Unfortunately in the books and the early films we get a strong whiff of the author’s rather unpleasant chauvinism towards other races as well as towards women. There are also homophobic passages which are unacceptable to the modern reader but which belonged to their time as homosexuality was still a crime in Britain up to 1967. Good or bad though, acceptable or unacceptable, all these Bond novel themes opened up important issues for me and provided valuable food for thought whether I agreed with Fleming/Bond or not. They instigated many a debate in my mind. For my adolescent self they were a godsend, providing hours of educational diversion as well as pure escapism.
As I saw the early films before I dipped into the books, James Bond has always meant Sean Connery for me.( I don’t count the comic film version of “Casino Royale” played by David Nivien.) As I read the novels, Connery provided the picture in my mind whenever “Bond” was mentioned. He seemed a perfect fit — strong, tall, muscular but also graceful and charming. People commented on his easy, laconic manner, sense of humour and supple movement. I believe my female friends when they tell me that the 1960’s Connery oozed sexual charisma. Despite his rough working class upbringing in Scotland he also skilfully portrayed the sophistication and upper class snobbery of Fleming’s character.( based partly upon Fleming himself.) Apparently, Ian Fleming did not immediately approve of the choice of Connery, as he didn’t match the character imagined in his head. However he was quickly converted and in a later book, ” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, he even wrote a potted Scottish/ Swiss biography that approximately matched Connery’s own. Fleming admitted that he had Sean Connery in his mind when he wrote his later Bond stories. He even made Bond slightly less cold and cruel in response to Connery’s injection of warmth and humour into the character in those early films. Thus the film company had a big problem when Connery tired of the role even though it had given him tremendous fame and success. After “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger and “Thunderball”, Connery had to be persuaded to reprise the role in “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. He had ambition to be a more serious actor and did not want to end up being type-cast. However the experiment with George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was a disappointment for many because of his lack of any acting ability and the wooden deliverance of his lines. Lazenby’s only previous claim to fame was being a model and appearing as the “Big Fry man” in the TV chocolate adverts. This was hardly much of a recommendation. It was hoped that his looks and muscularity would carry the day, but they didn’t! Lazenby also didn’t get on with Terence Hunt, the director and announced he would step down from the role even before the film was released. To me, it was a good adventure film which suffered because of the disappearance of Connery. This was not poor Lazenby’s fault. He might have even grown into the role if he had stuck around a bit longer. But he didn’t. So it was that Connery was persuaded to return to do “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971. To most of us Bond fans it was as if the real James Bond had returned to vanquish the imposter. Then however, Connery really did relinquish the role apart from an “unofficial”. off-franchise return in the early 1980’s in the non- Fleming story ” Never Say Never Again”. He probably needed the cash boost and the title is obviously a joke based on his broken resolution. By then however, Roger Moore was well established in the official role and to many younger people he was the “real” James Bond.
I have never accepted Roger Moore as James Bond, even though he was considered for the film role before Sean Connery. At the time Moore was too busy with his TV adventurer role “The Saint”. He didn’t land the part until 10 years later. I refused to go and see his Bond films but have watched bits of them on TV in the subsequent years. I find it difficult to take him seriously as an actor. He is very wooden and unconvincing. He copied Connery’s sense of humour in the role but played it as if the whole story was a joke rather than a serious thriller lightened by occasional humour. Anyway, by the 70’s when Moore took over the role, I was no longer a teenage fantasist. I was now married, in a full time job and from 1973, a father. You could say I had grown up and grown out of James Bond.
The whole James Bond thing has now become a money-spinning franchise. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but his most famous creation lived on, creating a life of its own. The main motivation for all this seems to be to make money. I believe it the second most lucrative film franchise of all time ( after Harry Potter.) The Fleming family and estate have commissioned several different authors to write subsequent Bond books and keep the money flowing in. Similarly the film producers didn’t stop once they had run out of original Fleming stories. They commissioned new script writers and kept raking in the profits. This lucrative franchise is still running of course and there seems no end to it. There have now been 25 different Bond films involving 7 actors in the lead role. Bond’s controller at MI6, “M”, has now changed from a man ( Bernard Lee) to a woman ( Judy Dench). That wouldn’t have happened in the sexist, pre-feminist 50’s and 60’s. I have found reasons to dislike and reject most of the “imposter” Bonds. Roger Moore- too wooden; Timothy Dalton — too short; Daniel Craig — also too short, too fair and with more than a hint of cauliflower ears! David Niven, back in the 50’s was too old and too jokey. I quite liked the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan . I went to his Bond movies in the 90’s when I was taking my own teenage son on cinema trips. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was a decent actor. However, I have largely remained a Sean Connery purist and have little or no interest in stories not written by Ian Fleming. James Bond is not like silly Dr Who. He cannot magically reincarnate himself just to suit the needs of the TV or film company. For me, James Bond belongs to the 1950’s and 60’s, the era in which he was created and in which his original stories are set. I feel it has been a mistake to have turned him into a Peter Pan like time- traveller, totally cut off from his roots. ( Except that the people who have done this are a lot richer than I ever will be.)
I feel it’s just plain greedy and silly to just keep continuing with a franchise which artistically, culturally and historically, has far out-lived its sell-by date. The current films have been reduced to formulaic action movies. What were once fresh ideas ( technological gadgetry, exotic locations, dramatic combat, glamorous seduction) are now so routine as to be stale clichés.
I suppose the biggest reason why I have been turned off the post- Connery Bond films is that I am not a hormone-charged, impressionable adolescent anymore. Sadly I have grown up and it takes a lot more than car-chases, spectacular explosions and glamorous women to get me interested in a film nowadays. I now expect a good, deep, interesting plot, authentic dialogue, realistic locations and skilled acting to draw me into a film. James Bond doesn’t do it for me anymore. But I do admit to more than a frisson of excitement when a be-suited 007 suddenly swung round, raised his Walther PPK and fired a single shot out of my TV, the screen quickly filling up with blood. Then came the deep bass guitar strings and strident, screaming brass of John Barry’s theme tune, followed by the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra singing : “You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Suddenly I was back in the 60’s, where James Bond belongs. For 90 minutes it was great to be a teenager again!


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 Jan

  I am reading a rather erudite Turkish novel — “The Black Book” by Orhan Pamuk — which centres on the issue of identity. It not only concentrates on the identity of the main character, who hides his real self by taking on another individual’s persona, but is also concerned with the identity of the author’s country. He argues that as post 1st World War Turkey modernises, it takes on more and more characteristics of the West, such that the Turks are in danger of losing their own identity. Even uniquely Turkish mannerisms and body language, passed down from generation to generation, are now being lost because Turks are imitating the gestures and expressions of Hollywood film stars.

  I can empathise with this view, living in a country which seems intent on becoming the 51st State of the USA. Has our former colony now colonised us so that we are in danger of losing our Britishness? We are dominated by fast food chains, out of town shopping malls, car- culture and endless repeats of “Friends.” Thanks to Google and Windows ( both American), “colour” is now spelt “color” and “center” has morphed into “center.” We drink Lattes and Americanos at Starbucks ( whatever happened to the humble coffee?) and shop online with . It’s worrying.

  However, “The Black Book” is mainly concerned with individual identity. Who are we? When I look into a mirror, what is the answer to the question: Who am I? These questions are not as simple to answer as one might at first think. I remember studying a play, “The Balcony”, by the French writer Jean Genet, in which the characters are trapped in a maze of mirrors. Each one is bent or distorted in a different way, so each gives up a different reflection. The varying reflections represent the many aspects of the character’s personalities or their roles in society. It’s like the mirror room in the House of Fun at the fairground. It’s very good for a laugh but not much use in unfolding the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The mirrors both reveal and conceal. What is real and what is merely illusion?

  Getting to the core of ourselves, the essence of who we really are, is surprisingly complicated. It’s like peeling the proverbial onion. Each layer removed merely uncovers another layer of disguise. We are like performers in an Ancient Greek play. We love to don a variety of masks to hide our real selves from the onlooking outside world — our audience. One reason for this constant kaleidoscope of identities is the large number of roles each of plays in our lives. Just within the family, I perform the roles of : husband, father, son, brother, grandfather, cousin, uncle and so on. I constantly change depending on who I am with. In the wider world I become: a friend, a neighbour, a customer, a chorister, a patient and a motorist to name but a few of my roles. The list is endless. But the question remains the same no matter how many times I transform myself : “Who am I?” The trouble is that most of us seem to spend the greater part of our lives playing out the roles that are expected of us by others. In one sense, we are running away from our real selves. The role constantly changes according to the company and/or the situation we find ourselves in. Maybe one of the essential elements of being a successful human being is to be able to frequently and rapidly adapt, which is the very type of behaviour that a chameleon is famous for.

  The ability to constantly change seems to be an important social skill in modern society. In recent times the skill of disguising ourselves and presenting many different faces to the world has also been seen to be very desirable. It’s interesting that some of the most famous and wealthiest people in the world are film stars who specialise in pretending to be someone else. But in everyday life too, there has been an increasing trend towards faking it, as opposed to presenting our “real” selves to the world. In the not too distant past, ” fake” usually represented something that was undesirable or somebody who was untrustworthy. Afterall, who would want to own a forged Grand Master painting rather than the original? Similarly, who would want to spend time with someone who did not tell the truth or was always trying to give a false impression? However, in the last twenty years or so, “fake” seems to have become much more socially acceptable, and even desirable. Plastic surgery for instance, is now big business with more and more people wanting to follow in the footsteps of the “stars” by reinventing themselves. It’s now not only Ringo who has had a “nose-job” or Joan Collins who has had a face-lift in order to try to defy the ageing process. False breasts have helped launch numerous lucrative careers and the waiting lists for implants remain very large despite recent , well- publicised disasters. Bo-toxing and lip jobs are popular procedures for those , particularly the wealthy, who wish to enhance their sexuality or retain their youthful looks. Less people seem to be content with the looks they were born with.

  False nails and false eye-lashes are now the norm for many and cosmetic dentistry is increasingly sought after by those that can afford it. At one time I thought it was only older people who had false teeth which they popped into a glass by their bed at night. Now they are popular and much admired, thanks to TV programmes such as “Ten years Younger” which popularise such “teeth jobs.”  Why do you think all those ageing rock stars all seem to have perfect sets of gleaming gnashers? There seems to be no end to the fakery. Films and glossy magazines employ filters on their cameras in order to present their actors and models as having perfect, unlined and unblemished skin. Instead of being something to be ashamed of, it’s now “cool” to be a fake.

  Increasingly numbers of people now want to disguise themselves and present what is essentially a false image to the outside world. David Bowie and Lady Ga Ga have forged succesful pop careers on their abilty to constantly reinvent themselves and present different guises to their adoring fans. Bowie, Mark Almond ( Soft Cell) and others have even sought to present a deliberately ambiguous sexual identity to the world to perhaps increase their air of mystery. It may sound bewildering and disorientating, but was ( and is) part of their attraction and allure. It seems that in the pursuit of fame and social success, the truth is one of the first things to be jettisoned. Does anybody actually want to understand who Bowie or Ga Ga really are, or are most of us just mesmerised by their chameleon qualities?

  Another enemy of the truth is propaganda and censorship, usually employed by those who wield influence or power. Hitler and Stalin and many other dictators have actually re-written history and tried to indoctrinate their peoples into believing it. Opponants are constantly damned and their own heroic qualities enhanced. Image again reigns supreme. Who would have thought that Joseph Stalin, a ruthless despot who was responsible for the deaths and persecution of millions of people, was affectionally known as Uncle Jo and was loved as the kindly father of the Russian nation. Our own Royal family have also played this image game, although not in such callous or murderous circumstances. People in power always try to manipulate the facts in order to present a favourable picture to the world, irrespective of the truth. I have recently enjoyed watching an excellent TV documentary about Queen Victoria and her children. ( all 9 of them.) Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert were determined to present themselves and their offspring to the British public as a happy, loving family. They hoped to avoid the fate of their French counterparts by trying to be as ordinary and normal as possible so that people could more easily identify with them. In fact, the hidden truth was that they were far from the image that they tried to present. The children were beaten or whipped for any slight misdemeanour, while Victoria and Albert themselves had such vicious rows that their closest advisers sometimes feared for their health ( particularly Albert’s) or sanity( particularly Victoria’s.) One commentator summed up the situation neatly by saying that in public Victoria was revered, but within her own family she was feared.

  So image often wins out in the battle with truth. Wealthy and influential people often employ advisers and publicists to present the right image to the public and protect it from harm. The Beckhams are masters of this marketing game such that they have most of the world eating out of their hands, helped by their friends in the mass media.

   What does all this matter? Well, do we really want to live in a society based on falsehoods, wrong impressions and lies? Trust in politicians is now at a very low ebb. I for one suspect them of lying to us most of the time. One blatant example was the non-existant weapons of mass destruction that were invented by Bush and Blair to justify their illegal and disastrous invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Are we really happy for such pretence and dishonesty to perculate through society as a whole? What I find most disturbing is that this confusing myriad of disguises, often employed in our society, not only hide one person from another but can also allow one to hide from oneself. In other words, one is in danger of believing one’s own press-cuttings.

  Maybe the true person is only eventually revealed when one dies and all the role-playing, propaganda and pretending finally comes to an end. Surely then, in the memories of those closest to one, the true individual will emerge, unembellished, un-airbrushed and unadorned. He was a great leader. She was a wonderful musician. He was caring and generous. She was a deep-thinking intellectual. Yet even here, the whole truth is seldom revealed. Eulogies and orbituaries are not noted for highlighting a person’s faults or weaknesses. Unless the deceased was particularly evil such as a serial killer, he or she will usually be remembered for his/her good points. It would be thought of as disrespectful to emphasise their bad side. To take a famous example, Sir Winston Churchill is generally regarded as one of the very greatest of Great Britons. His strength, skill, vision and determination helped save our country in its hour of need, when it stood virtually alone against the might of Nazi Germany in 1940 ( apart from Greece and the whole of the British Empire that is — but we won’t mention that!) Not so widely advertised are: Churchill sending armed troops and police to tackle striking Welsh miners in 1910, the disastrous Dardenelles campaign which was Churchill’s bright idea to break the deadlock in the First World War or his willingness to use poisonous gas on rebellious Kurds when Britian was ruling Iraq in the 1920’s. So maybe he was not such a saint or a hero afterall? Rumours also abound that Churchill was in favour of hanging Gandhi if he went on a prolonged hunger strike.

  Thus it seems that both with individuals and with countries, the deeper one investigates into who or what we are, the more muddied and confusing the picture becomes. The truth is very difficult to pin down. This is not a problem if a person is primarily a poseur, intent on impressing ( ie deceiving) others. However, if one is interested in trying to discover oneself, to seek out the very essence of one’s being, then the nature of our society makes this an extremely difficult if not impossible task. As I grow older I reflect more and more about the meaning of life and try to make sense of my own. I have written memoirs and dug into my family history in order to try to get a clearer picture of myself. I have tried to isolate what morals, ethics, beliefs and attitudes have formed the foundation of my life and shaped its course. It’s not as easy a task as it sounds especially as I live in a society that seems intent on disguising itself and running away from the truth. Will I be able to strip away all the masks in time to find out the real me? It’s an important personal mission. I would hate to die without even knowing who I really am. Unfortunately this voyage of self-discovery is much more difficult than looking into the mirror and hoping for a simple answer! With posing, disguising and pretending being such an all pervasive feature of everyday life, it’s really difficult to extricate myself and get at the truth.

What’s Wrong With Thinking?

14 Oct

Everyone has his or her own opinion about what constitutes “rubbish.” This especially applies to an opinionated person like yours truly. Why do you think I write a blog? We can all more or less agree what to throw in the waste-bin, but viewpoints wildly differ about what is good, bad or indifferent in the world of culture, be it music, literature, drama, art or whatever. One man’s “load of rubbish” is another man’s masterpeice. The Tate Modern’s famous “pile of bricks” or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed with condoms, spring to mind. Yes, it’s simply a matter of personal taste. I love the Impressionists, the Expressionists and the Secessionists — in fact anything ending in “ist” seems to do the trick for me. Just joking of course. I also like the Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.

  When an aquaintance at a party described her experience at a Take That concert as “awesome”, I was convinced that she was  about to say “awful”, which is my opinion of that pathetic, middle-aged, “boy” band. I would reserve the over-used term “awesome” for a 3 hour gig by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band or an evening with the exquisite Mary Chapin Carpenter or any concert by David Byrne, with or without his Talking Heads. We both produced, faint embarrassed smiles to cover the obvious gulf between our musical tastes. It’s just part of being human. We all make our differing choices and clashes of opinions abound. It’s healthy. For instance, phenomenal sales would indicate that E L James’s ” Fifty Shades of Grey” is a great novel, but for many others, including myself, it might as well be called ” Fifty Shades of Cr-p.” What’s wrong with reading something by: David Mitchell, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or any number of subtle, intelligent modern novelists? Come to think of it why aren’t Tolstoy or Dickens near the top of the best-seller lists?

  I’m actually pleased that I am judgemental to a certain extent because it means that I am actively employing my brain to form a reasoned judgement about something, rather than just following the tide of hype. I’m proud to be a human-being and not a sheep. In the same vein, I’m not getting excited about J K Rowling’s first “adult” novel. That description gives the game away that her much vaunted Harry Potter series was really just for impressionable kids. I found them : obvious, formulaic, derivative, gimmicky and thus boring. I had to read one in order to “teach” it to my English set. They got bored too, maybe sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t waste my time with the rest or with the equally gimmick-ridden films with their heavy reliance on special effects to cover up the banality of the plot. Maybe J K’s new work could be re-named ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” as, in my opinion, that would neatly sum up her literary career so far.

  So we all have our opinions about what is good and what is rubbish unless one is merely wanting to go with the crowd and always agree with the majority. However, what really intrigues me is that, particularly in the world of television, increasing numbers of people seem to be deliberately choosing to indulge in “rubbish.” Is this part of the oft quoted “dumbing down” of our society, especially in the world of entertainment?

  One of my Facebook “friends”, a well-respected ex-colleague, actually announced this preference for rubbish on her status update. She wrote — “Well that’s the walk over, now time to watch some rubbish on daytime TV” ( or words to that effect.) When I naively asked her why she deliberately chose to watch rubbish, her reply was brilliantly succinct:- ” Switch brain off!” Is this a different approach to entertainment  ie– allowing it to turn you OFF rather than turn you ON?

  I consider myself entertained if my brain is stimulated and engaged. I like to be presented with something that is: clever, interesting, funny, ironic, thought-provoking, surprising, even challenging. I love nothing better than when someone or something plants a new idea into my mind, something that increases my understanding and appreciation of life and of the world I live in. That’s what entertains and satisfies me — the opportunity to switch my brain on and develop it in some way. If, on the other hand, I was presented with something that was : obvious, trivial, cliched, pedestrian , stilted or unoriginal, then I would feel that my time was being wasted and/or my intelligence insulted! That’s why, for instance, I shall be reading my book tonight instead of watching the contrived, safe and predictable shenanigans at “Downton Abbey” on ITV. My wife Chris ackowledged in series 2 that Downton was mostly rubbish. Some of the plot developments were farcical apparently. Yet she and millions of others are now glued to the screen for series 3. It is one of the most popular dramas on current TV despite being regularly derided by the critics. The Guardian man compared it with Classic FM, probably meaning entertainment that is provided in easily digestible chunks and not presenting much of an intellectual challenge. My daughter Catherine commented that it is a great programme for multi- tasking to. In other words, you don’t have to concentrate very hard to follow it and understand the characters. It seems to be a dramatic equivalent of easy-listening, MOR music. It fills in the background and helps one to relax. The comparison with Classic FM is appropriate as this very popular radio station  just plays digestible extracts from the most popular classical pieces, much easier to cope with than listening to all 4 movements of a symphony or concentrating throughout a whole opera. This in turn may help to explain the decline of the album in favour of the random i-pod shuffle. Could it be that many people are now just not willing to concentrate for very long anymore and are not particularly keen at working their brains? Being an ex school teacher this trend is obviously anathema to me. Watching cardboard-cutout characters( eg The stiff upper lipped, deferential butler, the fiesty Dowager or the headstrung young Lady) and following predictable plotlines is not my notion of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. My idea of a good gripping drama is the Danish thriller ” The Killing ” or the brilliant American series “The Wire”, both of which presented in-depth, multi-dimensional pictures of the societies they were set and lots of food for thought. Now that’s entertainment!

  Perhaps the main attraction of “mediocre” programmes is that they do NOT provide any intellectual challenge, allowing one’s over-active brain to take a break. One can view them with one’s brain largely disengaged. In fact, the very act of watching may well help push the switch into the off position. A younger- generation relative recently announced that she needed to watch some rubbish as she wished to relax before returning to work the next morning. I have also known people who have watched endless repeats of “Come Dine With Me” or “Location, Location” in order to switch off or zone-out. Maybe Reality TV, Daytime TV or  trashy “page-turning” novels ( sometimes known as beach or airport reads), serve the same broad function of alchohol. They help to obliterate the tedium of everyday existance. They also provide a temporary escape from the stresses and pressures of modern life. Post war Hollywood musicals and rom-coms served much the same function in 1940’s and 50’s cinemas, except that Doris Day or Katherine Hepburn had just a touch more class than Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell. ( in my opinion.)

  I know it’s very important to relax or chill, as they say. I usually do so by listening to some soothing music, going for a stroll or having a nap. I have also always wanted to try out meditation or have more than the occasional massage. A relaxed meal with family and/or friends is also very calming. But when it comes to literature, art, TV, film etc , I like to be be stimulated. Just as I avoid junk food I also avoid junk entertainment. I could never deliberately watch ” rubbish” in order to switch my mental faculties off. That would go against the grain. I spent my entire  career encouraging young people to actively exercise their brains! So, for much of my spare time, I prefer to be challenged and stimulated. As another friend commented: ” What’s wrong with thinking?” In my view, life is far too short to consciously waste it on self-acknowledged garbage. But then again — it’s all a matter of opinion!

HILLS and MILLS by BUS-PASS — an Experimental “Holiday.”

20 Aug

 ” Are you enjoying your holiday in Darwen?” asked a cheeky kid, as Chris and I waited at the bus stop ( We were in Darwen, Lancashire, not Darwin, Australia.). When I replied that we were, he declared in a loud, mocking voice: ” I can’t imagine anyone coming to Darwen for a holiday!” His friends sniggered as they walked off. Obviously, growing up in this old Pennine mill town has led to a severe case of familiarity breeding contempt. These lads could not think of any reason why anyone would freely choose to visit their town, a place that is well off the tourist trail. However there we were. We were in Lancashire, not Lanzarote. We were visiting cotton towns not the Costas. Why? Well the answer is that this “holiday” was an experiment.

  I have this idea that nearly every place is interesting if one allows oneself to be interested. So, in theory, I could enjoy a holiday just about anywhere. Obviously I would avoid going to Chernobyl or trying to have a relaxing fortnight in the middle of a war zone. However with that important safety proviso in place, the sky’s the limit. Another point is that I believe you don’t have to fly off to an exotic, far-away destination to have a stimulating and enjoyable time. Fascinating experiences and interesting places could be waiting just down the road, round the next corner, without the need to endure airport queues or onerous security checks. It’s surprising how many people deliberately deny themselves potentially enjoyable experiences by refusing to consider a whole raft of destinations. They won’t go there because it doesn’t have a decent beach. They cannot go there because the weather is too cold. They don’t want to go there because the locals don’t speak English. They avoid visiting that place because it is not pretty and photogenic. This seems to me a blinkered way of approaching holiday planning. As I’ve said — almost every place has points of interest. All one has to do is seek them out. Some people might describe this as “thinking outside the box.”

  That is why this summer ( 2012) Chris and I decided to go on “holiday” to an area that is not featured in most tourist brochures, travel programmes or guide books. We went to the South Pennines on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border in northern England. According to the Rough Guide to England, this is a region which most tourists figure is “unlikely to offer much in the way of cultural promise or light-hearted diversion.” It mentions the historical signifance of the old mill towns but concludes that :” It’s still hard to propose a serious tourist investigation of the region.” It’s a mysterious place that resides in a gap between the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District and the Lake District. It’s an area one passes through while travelling from Leeds to Manchester or en-route between one National Park and another. It’s a sort of north of England no-man’s land. The National Park architect, John Dower, dismissed it as the “Industrial Pennines.” Thus, despite containing a lot of scenic beauty and historical importance, it failed to achieve National Park status or mainstream tourist recognition.

  So, what attracted me (us) to this largely ignored destination? Well I blame 2 famous writers, a well known artist and a history teacher. First of all, my teacher instilled in me a fascination for the early years of the Industrial Revolution which originated in the 18th and 19th century textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The moist atmosphere was ideal for handling and working thread and the fast flowing streams and rivers provided water power for the first machines. The thousands of sheep on the hills provided the wool and cotton was imported through the ports of Liverpool and Manchester nearby. Later the area was well placed to develop steam power because of the ready availability of coal, and huge chimneys were erected to get rid of the smoke from the furnaces. Later, I became a history teacher myself, and over the years the names and achievements of the inventors who kick- started the World’s first large scale industry achieved almost legendary status in my mind.  There was John Kay’s Flying Shuttle, Richard Hargreaves and his Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright’s Spinning Water Frame and Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule, to name but a few. These inventions led to mass- production processes in the textile industry leading to the World’s first factories ( or mills) and factory towns. These were the very places we were due to visit. These atmospheric mill towns scattered across the backbone of  northern England are beautifully described in the opening chapter of J B Priestly’s ” The Good Companions” and memorably depicted in the match-stick men pictures of L S Lowry. Priestly talks about ” the high moorland which thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” This is an area where one can wander for miles without meeting a soul and hear nothing apart from the wind and the “curlews crying in that empty air.” Forming a blackened edge to these moors are the “host of tall chimneys, the rows and rows of little houses built of blackening stone, that are like tiny, sharp ridges on the hills.”

  Taking all this into consideration, it’s a mystery to me why this region is so neglected by travellers. There are so many startling contrasts. Juxtaposition is a good word to use here. I find it hard to resist a mighty mill with its giant chimney stack, juxtaposed against the majestic background of a bleak, bare hill. It’s like a living Lowry painting and obviously where he got a lot of his inspiration from. A short, sharp walk can take one from an old industrial town, heavy with historical atmosphere, up to the liberating, open moors, festooned with heather and sprinkled with shining reservoirs. Someone else who appreciated the wild escapism of the Pennine moors was Emily Bronte who lived in the cobbled mill town of Haworth. Thanks to her, these uplands will forever be associated with Heathcliff trying to connect with Cathererine and escape the suffocations of society, in the memorable novel ” Wuthering Heights.” Charlotte Bronte wrote of her sister Emily: “She found in the black solitude many and dear delights, and not the least and best was liberty.”

  Yet another writer, William Blake, immortalised the “dark satanic mills” of this region in his poem/hymn “Jerusalem”, comparing the World’s first centres of mass production, with their deafening clatter of machinary, clouds of choking dust and belching chimneys, with hell on earth, and comparing them unfavourably with “England’s green and pleasant land.” Well the old mills are mostly silent now, following the collapse of Britain’s once all-conquering textile industry in the mid 20th century. They stand there like ghosts from the past. Many have been demolished along with their iconic chimneys. Others hang on in a sad, neglected state, defaced by graffiti and punctured with broken windows. For a time, it looked as if the whole lot would be destroyed and the reminders of a whole era lost for ever. Thankfully, attitudes to conservervation changed just in time for some mills to be rescued, restored and preserved. They are now living out new lives as : museums, apartment blocks, warehouses and shopping malls.

  To me, this contrast between the giant mills, tall chimneys and wild, surrounding hills creates a unique and fascinating environment. It might not be conventionally pretty but it certainly serves up dramatic vistas, some man-made, some natural and others: an intoxicating mixture of the two.

  Another slightly unusual element of this vacation was that Chris and I chose to travel around on public transport. It would have been a lot easier and quicker to have used the car but we decided to leave it in the garage. We could also have gone on a coach tour and saved ourselved the trouble and worry of figuring out how to get from A to B. However, I thought that the car or a coach would act as a barrier between us and the local comminuty. Maybe we would get more of a feel for the place if we were waiting at the same bus stops as the locals. It worked like a dream! If we had simply jumped into the car or boarded a private coach we would never have chatted with the 95 year old lady who lived on her own and whose daughter lives in California and visited her just once a year, in September. She liked to get out for a change of scene and to meet people. She met us — at our very first bus stop! We would similarly never have talked to the ex-mayoress of Darwen who had gone down to the Palace to meet the Queen in the 1950’s and was now moving around with the aid of a wheeled zimmer frame, and still catching the local bus down the hill into town. She told us that she had enough stories to last all the way to Blackburn!

 Finally,  there was another important reason why we caught the local buses. One of the few perks of being over 60 years old is gaining a bus pass which allows free local travel after 9-30am throughout England. It’s one of that rare species — the Universal Benefit, ( along with the Winter fuel allowance and free prescriptions which I am also very grateful for.) More and more benefits are now being scrapped or means-tested by the cost-cutting Coalition government which came to power in 2010. Actually Chris and I were “lucky” to get our passes around the age of 60, whereas people hitting that age now have to wait longer and longer as the qualification age is being raised in stages up to 65 and beyond. A friend, merely 3 years younger than me, recently explained that he would have to wait until 67 before he got his pass ( if ever.)

  Ever since the austerity programme began with savage cuts in public spending, I have expected that the free bus pass system would be an obvious target for the Chancellor’s axe. However, by some miracle ( or pressure from Mr Clegg and the Liberals), Mr Osborne has not stopped it yet. Therefore, I had the idea of doing the bus-pass trip, now rather than later, before, like the mills, it passes into history.

  This then became the final ingredient of our experimental holiday. Chris kindly agreed to give it a go. Actually, I sold it to her more as an ” experience” than a “holiday.” We wouldn’t be doing much lazing around on sun lounges or diving into enticing pools. We were not to be pampered at a spa resort or being waiting on hand and foot at a luxurious, posh hotel. Instead, we would be waiting at dusty, draughty bus stations and trundling from one declining town to another in a rickety old bus. It’s not exactly the glamorous end of the travel trade! However, we did it. We travelled to an area that is avoided by most holiday-makers, and we used the most inconvenient means of transport available. But it was great! We met lots of interesting people, saw striking scenary and learnt a lot. What’s more, our bus-passes can now add Manchester and East Lancs to their lists of conquests. ( next time we plan to go to the Yorkshire south Pennines.)

  I think the experiment and the experience was a big success and much of it was for free. It’s not often one can say that these days. Now that we’ve done it, I have a great feeling of satisfaction. No future Coalition – cut can ever take away the fond memories of our “Hills and Mills” bus- pass odyssey.