Saturday, 26 February 2011

Freakshow frolics

I haven't quite given up watching TV but I'm nearly there.

It wasn't something I planned to do. Given the right mood, I can enjoy an evening with the television. I don't just watch serious shows. I can sink into programmes that are merely pleasant and those that counterfeit an undemanding friendship between presenter and viewer. When real friends aren't on hand, fakery will do.

These days, while I still sit down to enjoy the occasional film or music programme, I try to avoid much of what TV offers. That skews my criticism - I ought to know more about the subjects of my discomfort. But there's a limit on how long I can endure some of the latest trends. Sometimes that limit allows me to watch for two or three minutes. Occasionally I last nearly half an hour. Often I reach for the remote or the off switch in a matter of seconds.

My discomfort began many years ago. The council estate on which I grew up was a popular haunt for TV documentary-makers, eager to present all of us who lived there as feral creatures, alienated from society by whatever the bogey-man of the moment was, from modern architecture to the innate stupidity and violence of the working classes. We gradually learned their methods. They would move in smilingly, ingratiating themselves with the locals, praising anyone who would embody the director's views in a speech direct to camera.

There's always someone who wants to be TV. It's easy to find someone with a grievance – or genuine anguish – who can be treated as typical of a whole community. Teenage youths with a sense of bravado are prepared to declare their involvement in gangs, threats, mugging – anything the pretty young interviewer wants – because it's better to gain her smiling approval than to admit the uncomfortable truth that they're only 12 or 14 and their mum won't let them out after 7.00 p.m.

Television lies. It doesn't often tell direct untruths but it lies by selection and omission, by choosing a single person, a small group or a set of episodes to stand for a class, a racial group or a community. This is not governed by the laws of libel – and TV companies usually know how to stay within the guidelines laid down by those who control broadcast media.

Besides, TV offers what the audience and the tabloids demand. It feeds into prejudice, hatred and contempt. I can't talk with authority about My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding because I knew from the advance publicity that the programmes would drip with contempt for the people they persuaded to take part – and that it would add to the daily contempt and hatred which too many members of the Romany and Traveller communities have to endure. I didn't watch. After transmission I listened to anguished voices of a number of intelligent travelling people and their descendants. I noted that they didn't even sound angry – the misrepresentation and the attitudes that programme-makers encouraged in the viewers were too familiar to cause anything but resignation to pain.

Freakshows used to be a staple of travelling fairs but they're dying out now. I've mixed feelings about them. No-one wants to be defined as a freak but the people who toured the country, exhibiting themselves in booths, seem to have found some kind of camaraderie as well as a regular income. Some – like the fat man Daniel Lambert – achieved respect for their courtesy and intelligence. It's hard to think that the freakshows on television offer such an opportunity.

TV freakshows want two things: outlandishness and suffering. The ideal freak-star should have an agonising past with a few ex-friends or embarrassing relations who are prepared to sell their stories to the tabloids. It helps if the freak-star is working-class and lacks the means or confidence to question or challenge the freakshow system. Then the freak-star should have outbursts of unacceptable behaviour – the sort of outbursts any of us might have if watched round the clock and required to perform for cameras that follow every move. The more polite freak-star will recognize the outburst as misconduct, subside into tears and apologise. The badly-behaved freak-star defends her or his conduct and can be held up for further contempt.

Any freak-star who attacks the system is blamed. Good, pliant, commendable freak-stars talks of their “journey” and praise the system. The reward is more TV exposure. Occasionally the freak-star achieves financial gain, though this is usually short-term.

Sometimes a freak-star tries to trick the system – or is incited to trick the system – by falsely representing a past as tragic or impoverished. You can't become a freak-star without overcoming illness, grief, abuse or addiction. You have to make your exploiters cry for the cameras – so long as they don't smudge their carefully-applied make-up.

But if you lie to elicit those much-needed tears, the tabloids and public will turn on you. They want authentic suffering, a real journey – and you mustn't deceive them. If you do, they'll turn away from you at once. There's always another outlandish figure or group to hate, despise or pity. The trickster who tries to exploit the freakshow system is condemned to isolation. The TV companies and their bosses rake in their millions.

And the audience stays smug in a contempt which provides warm insulation from most of the pain in the world.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Imagined journeys

I'm not really about to travel on the trans-Siberian railway - or even on the Moscow metro. But when I attend my weekly Russian class, the tutor assumes we will all go to Russia one day.

She seems rather worried about this, especially as most of us fail to make the rapid progress she would like. My studies are hampered by my failure to find sufficient time for homework and my inability to pronounce words with long strings of consonants.

I've spent some time this evening writing out numbers, days and months in my neatest Russian script in the hope that I'll start to remember them. But somehow they fail to lodge properly in my brain. I really need 20 or 30 minutes a night on Russian to make any progress - an hour or so at the weekend, when lucky, doesn't have the same effect. So when the next lesson comes round, I'll feel like a dunce again.

But when I look back, I have made some small progress. I no longer struggle with Cyrillic script and have acquired a few useful phrases: I can say извините (excuse me) я не знаю (I don't know) and employ the useful word можно (our tutor's very keen on можно) which means something like "May I ...?" and can be used in a variety of situations.

At times we enact situations. Some are guided by the text book while others are invented by the tutor. The text book has a fine sense of exotic scenarios. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between the delegates to a conference for amateur accordianists, who enthusiastically introduced themselves to one another, giving details of their nationality and job - in Russian of course.

Then there was the keen but inexpert student of Russian (always asking Russian friends to speak slowly until they pronounced the words one careful syllable at a time). His evident lack of competence didn't stop him heading for a large bookshop (дом книги) where he asked the assistant for the book of his choice - not a simple reader or a Chekhov short story but Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Later he set out to buy a balalaika as well - there's an enthusiasm for music running through the text book.

But we move away from the book to practise other scenarios. We have arrived at customs and are interrogated by an official who demands to see passport and visa, asks questions about nationality and profession and which bag belongs to which traveller. We buy tickets for the train at the main rail station (a word derived from Vauxhall, after the much-admired London station), and enquire about train times (numbers again). We learn how to navigate the metro in Moscow or Novosibirsk.

But again our tutor is anxious. "Don't go to Russia alone. You should go in a group or with a guide - unless you know Russian people." She's worried we'll be mugged or cheated - that we won't be able to cope with crowds or pickpockets. She also warns us about the high prices in Moscow and the risk of taking an unlicensed taxi. At the same time she wants us to understand that Russian people are hospitable and good friends who will, when we know them, welcome us into their homes.

I suspect she would be a little less worried were we more competent in the language. I would worry about any friend who arrived in London alone with little English and attempted to navigate the city. But the language, while fascinating, remains strange.

Of course, it's the strangeness that attracts me. I've reached the stage where I can notice the way Russian words have different boundaries to English words. For instance, there are different words for going somewhere on foot and going somewhere in a vehicle. There are other oddities. Numbers ending in 2-4 take the genitive singular while higher numbers that don't end in 2-4 take the genitive plural. And the sane word means both "world" and "peace".

That, for me, is one of the most exciting things about learning a language. As I discover the different concepts that are taken for granted in other languages, I feel my mind expanding to accommodate additional possibilities. At the same time, certainties I'd taken for granted become unstable. It's worth struggling with the numbers and the strings of consonants for that alone.

Of course, I'd rather become so expert that I could read Pushkin or Akhmatova in the original. It doesn't seem likely. Next week we learn how to book hotel rooms. I expect we'll be asking questions about bedding, showers and when breakfast is served. It's not quite the vocabulary of Eugene Onegin.

I don't suppose I'll even get to Moscow either, so I shan't use my expert knowledge on travelling by Metro or booking a hard or soft seat to Novosibirsk. I'd rather like to cross Russia alone, for all my tutor's anxieties. Perhaps, if I did, I'd find myself managing the language a little better.

But that's enough reflection. It's time to return to my Russian homework. I have to work out how to buy a samovar and some Russian chocolate. I might buy a bottle of vodka as well and a few postcards - or even a large, red piano. It doesn't really matter what I buy since I won't really be paying for it or bringing it home.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chaplin's world

I've almost lost count of the number of times I've planned - and failed - to get to a "coffee-time" concert at St Peter's church in Nottingham. I almost always see the notice at the wrong time or discover the concert I'd like has been scheduled for a weekend when I have other plans.

I nearly forgot the Chaplin/Keaton double bill with live organ accompaniment. But I saw the sign again as I paid a brief visit to Light Night and determined not to miss the concert. The sound tracks added later to accompany silent movies leave them seeming incomplete. A live accompaniment, whether by soloist or full orchestra, brings early films to life - somehow when the music is live it more than takes the place of speech.

The concert offered two films: Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street and Buster Keaton in One Week. Donald MacKenzie, the organist, announced his preference for Keaton but I can't agree with him. Keaton may be as physically brilliant as Chaplin - even as good an actor - but I never care about his characters as I do about the various manifestations of the Little Tramp. Keaton's character seems all about expressionless cleverness - although it masquerades as incompetence - and I'm never convinced he really belongs to the societies which provide a backdrop for his escapades.

But I can't help believing in Charlie Chaplin's world. He inhabits the fringes of a complex, recognizable society. Work is possible but gruellingly difficult - bosses employ and sack people for no evident reason. Some people exploit or tyrannise over others. Worklessness, hunger and beggary are regular dangers. This world offers no consistent reward for virtue or hard work but luck and optimism may just pay off. Charlie copes with a mixture of slyness and sympathy. He is also capable of imitating the ruling classes, even in an ill-fitting suit and big shoes.

I find Charlie's imitations of the aristocracy and those in power particularly attractive. They suggest that the easy confidence of the wealthy is no more than a mannerism which can be acquired. It has nothing to do with class superiority. In these days when too many of our rulers are graduates of the Bullingdon Club, this is something worth remembering.

Easy Street isn't my favourite early Chaplin but I like the way it both records working-class life and parodies the contradictory middle-class views of the "dangerous" working class.
There are bullies, thieves, families with too many children and - a staple of the time - a drug den supplied by an evil foreigner. Charlie, by the beautiful young woman at the Hope Mission, gives up his life as a tramp and petty thief and volunteers for the police force. But he continues to behave in his familiar way, avoiding bullies unless compelled to fight and easily swayed by sympathy for the poor, pretty and desperate. He may have joined the police but the audience knows that he's not really an agent of the law. He's taken the job and the uniform for the pay and so that he can get the girl.

As a character, Charlie never sets out to change the world. Any difference he makes it accidental. (The real Charlie Chaplin was more politically engaged and kept under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's agents at the FBI.) But Chaplin's films remind me constantly that I live in an unjust society where worklessness and desperation still lurk threateningly for many people.
At the end of the screening I suddenly remembered I'd meant to attend a rally and march against the privatisation of the Post Office. My mood plummeted as I decided I'd probably missed it. I went to another short concert (by the pianist Alexandra Diarescu, including an outstanding performance of Ravel's "Ondine") and did some shopping before heading for the railway station.

As I got off the train I could hear drums and whistles in the distance. After what seemed a long time I saw the marchers, banners held high. The front of the march passed me and I still couldn't see where it ended. Laden with shopping as I was, I slipped into the march and headed onward. After a while my son greeted me and friends called "hello." "How many do you think there are?" one asked. "I thought there would only be twenty or thirty. I couldn't offer a guess. Later the local paper estimated the turn-out at a thousand - not bad for a suburban town.

I didn't walk far - just as well given the cans of baked beans in my shopping bag. It was plain there wouldn't be room for everyone in the hall booked for the rally. I left the marchers who had walked the whole distance to the chairs provided and headed home. My back hurt and I wanted to sit in a comfortable chair. But I was cheered by the combination of Charlie Chaplin, Ravel and a community of marchers prepared to carry banners on a cold, grey day to defend something of value.