Sunday, 28 December 2008

Retail trauma

A phrase I've always hated is "retail therapy." The idea that buying things I neither need nor want strikes me as slightly bizarre. Watching shoppers in action sometimes makes me think that shopping is an addiction and that retail therapy is no more logical than "alcohol therapy" or "gambling therapy." Shopping is like alcohol and gambling in the way it lets some people leave their anxieties behind for a few hours. It's different in the way it creates clutter and landfill.

For years the government has promoted debt and spending. It didn't start under New Labour - the idea of a service economy, in which large numbers of people would sell luxuries to one another, began with Margaret Thatcher's unquestioning glorification of the market. Perhaps, as a shopkeeper's daughter, she could see only the objects that crowded the shelves of the grocer's store and not the hard work that produced them.

I enjoy luxury goods and services. I like fine soaps and good, fairly-traded coffee. I love sitting down in a coffee shop with a cup or bowl of coffee and reading the newspapers. But now I'm economising. I buy decent everyday soap. I go to a cafe perhaps once or twice a month and mostly read the newspapers on-line. Such economies mean shops will close and people will lose their jobs. Only young people believe that it's safe to spend - the anxiety about the economy hasn't hit them yet. But it will.

I headed into Nottingham for the sales. It was a mistake. The city was filled with exuberant crowds, rejoicing at their freedom from Christmas at home. They wandered through the streets, squares and shops. It was the last day of Woolworth and the crowds gazed at the empty shelves like tourists in a strange land. Teenage boys pointed and laughed at the few DVDs and games that hadn't sold, even with an 80% mark-down. Battered desks from the offices behind the store carried prices (£5 for a desk and chair) and SOLD stickers. Shop assistants mechanically rang up purchases and didn't smile. I watched a lad pick up items on the shelves and put them down. Then his hand moved to his pocket. Was he shoplifting? I wasn't sure and didn't know who would be damaged by such a small theft.

Elsewhere crowds flowed through shopping centres and aisles. I tried to look for the things I wanted: shoes, trainers, a warm jacket - possibly a pair of slippers. I stopped looking soon. Everyone knows there will be more reductions soon as further shops close. I can wait.

I couldn't tell if the sales were successful or not. There were plenty of people but queues at the check-outs seemed no longer than usual. And hardly anyone seemed laden with bags - some people seemed to have bought nothing at all. The gluehwein stall had few customers although skaters circled and twirled on the open air ice rink.

In the 19th century, when shopping became a popular leisure pastime, literary works warned of its dangers. In The Ladies' Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) Emile Zola described the seductive charms of the department store. And in Goblin Market, Christina Rossetti's mini-epic of sex and shopping, obsessive buying and consumption is a deathly danger. In both, women are at particular risk. This may say something about 19th century society and anxieties but, even now, shopping is seen as a particularly feminine indulgence. I've occasionally worried that my dislike of shopping (except for books and stationery) makes me unfeminine but I think women existed before shopping became a popular leisure pursuit. I'll be glad if I'm no longer expected to like shopping but I'll grieve for the loss of jobs - and for all those makers and shopkeepers urged - by government propaganda - to follow their dream into bankruptcy.

Note: If you're puzzled by the relevance of the illustration, it is one of Laurence Housman's illustrations for Goblin Market. Laurence Housman is largely forgotten these days but his career was far more interesting than that of his famous brother.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Theatre days

It's a few years since I last went to the pantomime.

I love panto. One of my best theatre memories is of a trip with friends to the Players Theatre under the arches off Villiers Street on the London Embankment. There I sat with a beer beside me, join in the traditional chorus of "Oh! the fairies!" and saw a recreation of an early 19th century panto, before the arrival of principal boy or pantomime dame.

Our local panto is usually a sell-out. Some years I'd be too late to get tickets and queue, hopefully, for returns. It's not a starry panto but features excellent panto actors who return year after year and girls from local dance schools as a chorus. And it's written by someone who knows panto-history, has a love of bad jokes and leaves plenty of space for improvisation.

This year, I received an email offering me two tickets for the price of one in the new year. Of course, I'm wondering if I can find a friend who would like to go with me. Many people I know despise panto. They accuse it of vulgarity, bad jokes and misogyny. But the vulgarity and bad jokes are the point. As for misogyny - occasionally there's a dame who has a pretty strange idea of women. But a show in which a woman takes the male romantic lead while a man in a frock wears the most extravagant costumes in the show hardly endorses sexual stereotypes. Moreover, a show in which the audience is encouraged to take part, shouting "Look behind you!", "Oh no it isn't!" and, in Nottingham, "Ey up, me duck!", is a risky piece of theatre owing much to the old traditions of carnival with its exuberant role-reversals.

I'd really like to go to the panto. But the two-for-one offer alarms me. It seems another sign of the recession. Family and group visits to the panto must be down - in times of hardship theatre, the arts and so many other pleasures seem like a luxury that can be cut.

When I'm poor, which happens from time to time, theatre and the arts see me through. My mother taught me that, if you have a choice between dinner and a theatre ticket, the theatre ticket is the better investment because the pleasure lasts longer. You can always take a slab of bread and eat it while standing in the gallery. And my mother taught me the pleasures of free museums and art galleries - places to wander and let the imagination roam. A carefully-chosen postcard of a painting can be carried around for months, used as a bookmark and finally, in an act of generosity, sent to a friend.

But how many theatre companies and art galleries will survive the economic crisis? What will become of the musicians who give so much pleasure? And, for people whose pleasures lie elsewhere, how will the sports grounds be maintained? Will there be bus trips that take us to the countryside and will the paths, moors and beaches be maintained? What will happen to those historic sites that have been labelled "national (or international) heritage"? Somehow, in the disasters ahead, I hope we find time to preserve not just life itself but the things that, for many of us, make life worthwhile. And I hope we learn to share these pleasures more generously.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

To whom it may concern

I heard Adrian Mitchell perform only once, back in the 1970s. Then it was his poem about Victor Jara (later set to music) that made an impression.

I'm hesitant about political conviction as I am about religious conviction. Both have the capacity for evil as well as good and justified anger can lead swiftly to the cruelties of hate and vengeance. But Adrian Mitchell's poem for Victor Jara didn't call for vengeance. It simply insisted that we listen to what had done. Victor Jara was a folk singer who had supported the socialist President Allende. In the wake of the CIA-backed coup (on September 11, 1973) that toppled Allende and installed the dictator Pinochet, Jara was one of thousands taken to the Chile Stadium. His captors tortured him before they killed him; the broke his hands to make sure that he could never play the guitar again. Sometimes it's the details of cruelty that appal - it's easy to let the wealth of statistics sweep over me. But I couldn't forget about Victor Jara's hands.

These days, like most people, I've become infected by a kind of cynical helplessness. There is more I could do to oppose injustice, cruelty and so forth, but it's hard to believe it will do any good. But when I heard that Adrian Mitchell had died, I sought out his most famous poem, "To whom it may concern," and found a youtube video of his performance at the Albert Hall for the Poetry International. When Adrian Mitchell performed in 1965, he seemed like the voice of an angry hope for the future. The huge audience included Alan Ginsberg. The Vietnam war is long over but the there are still wars and safe, convenient, public lies. Adrian Mitchell went on campaigning and writing, though the audiences were smaller. But something seems to have vanished from the world since the campaign against the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was lost when our government refused to listen to the people who marched against war in Iraq. These days the innocence of hope is almost dead.

The world is a poorer place for the loss of Adrian Mitchell.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The champagne of teas

I'm just making my second pot of tea of the day. I want a lighter drink so it's Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas." That's what it says on the packet anyway.

I'm making the tea in a splendid teapot and cup set which was a gift from my daughter. Unusually, the teapot holds just the right amount for the cup and a half of tea I want.

A friend and I started wondering about teas and wines. If Darjeeling is "the champagne of teas." what does that make Earl Grey? The Gewuerztraminer, perhaps. And Assam might be a St. Emilion. We wondered if there was a good summer's job in France, drinking tea and wine and writing suitable descriptions. (If you are a French tea importer, I would really like that job.)

But good tea and coffee - not to mention teapots, coffeepots, cups and associated devices - seem to be the latest victim of the financial crisis. I went into Whittard's yesterday - it is one of the few shops I like - and walked into a sense of almost-tangible gloom. It's not so unusual these days. Sometimes the gloom is marked by an excess of cheeriness with shop staff smiling as broadly as they can and asking with determined enthusiasm, "Can I help you with anything?" But that draws attention to the vast empty spaces between the elegant displays where large red signs advertise price-cuts. Elsewhere the staff can't conceal the creeping misery and their worries for the future, though they remain polite and helpful, slipping into familiar shop-assistant mode as if it were a familiar coat. I used to think it was the crowds I hated, and that sales with space to move were fun - not any more. Sometimes I even shun the free samples of food and drink that are pressed upon me, though I almost always accept the hot coffee served by smiling teenagers with trays on traffic islands and in doorways. Behind them I can see empty chairs and tables where once customers lurked waiting for a seat.

Everyone has been waiting for price-cuts so the streets are crowded. There was a short queue of parents and grandparents taking children to meet Father Christmas (no charge and no purchase necessary) and a female elf in red and green managed the queue with a stern frown. The children were quiet and less excited than my two were in their Father Christmas days.

I met a friend to drink gluehwein in the Old Market Square. At first that too was fairly empty but at about 6.00 the queues lengthened. Soon I could barely hear the singing reindeer's head (bilingual in English and German) introduce itself for the third time (as "lustiger Rudolf", I think). It seemed slightly hesitant but nonetheless it stretched its neck and blinked hopefully as it began its rendition of "Tannenbaum" and "Silver Bells."

I stayed for more gluehwein than I'd intended and, as I made my way to the station, noticed that many shops were open long past their closing time though most of the customers had gone. At home I turned on the news. The second item told me that Whittard's is about to go into administration. I wonder how many of the shops I passed will still be open next Christmas.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

In defence of media studies

The criticisms are automatic. Whenever a commentator begins the phrase "useless subjects like ...", I know it's going to end with the words "media studies." Fifty per cent of the time, the commentator will continue by making the observation that media studies graduates aren't guaranteed jobs in the media at the end of their studies, as though the only end of a degreee was a relevant job. Obviously I'm old fashioned. I still believe - against all the declarations of politicians - that study can be an end in itself and that sustained thought on a range of subjects enriches the thinker, society as a whole and the democratic process.

Thirty years ago the phrase "useless subjects like ..." would have ended with the word "sociology." People still think of it as a new discipline - in fact the first university sociology departments were established in the nineteenth century - but at last its debates about society, the family and ways of life are taken for granted.

Eighty years ago English was the typical "useless subject" - so controversial that some Oxford and Cambridge colleges still refused to appoint tutors in English. The subject, which included Anglo-Saxon, history of language, the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Milton, was seen as best fitted for women, working-class people and colonial subjects but not a matter of serious scholarship. The subject which needed no justification was Classics - the study of Greek and Latin.

Now it's media studies that's under attack. And I wonder why. Our daily lives are saturated by the media. For the last couple of years I've barely watched TV, although I've managed to see most episodes of Doctor Who. But when I wake up, I turn on the radio. I check the internet so that I can read the papers and my favourite blogs. I notice advertisements on my way to work. Sometimes I go to the cinema. Occasionally I try playing a computer game or hunt for podcasts and video clips. I'm more influenced by the media than the literature I read - and I think that's true of most people. Surely something that influences people so much is worthy of study.

Media studies covers a huge area. It usually begins with thinking about the ways in which various kinds of media are created: what is the structure of a newspaper report, a film, a TV show, an advertisement? It's important to understand that these things are made to set rules and that the way they are shaped may control what they say.

The film-maker Peter Watkins, who is also one of the most acute critics of the media today, writes about what he calls the "monoform" - rules of editing, sound, etc. which are so aggressive and dominant that they deny the viewer or listener space for reflection, criticism or resistance. I once heard Peter Watkins speak to Media Studies students - I slipped in to hear him although I wasn't on the course. He asked the students to time the length of visual clips used in news broadcasts. I think they were about 6 seconds long then. They are shorter now, allowing even less time to reflect and question. But since Peter Watkins' lecture, I've found myself asking key questions: Whose film are we seeing? (Sometimes the film is library stock and not recent footage of the events described.) Does it tell the same story as the sound track? What story is being told by the way the clips are edited together? What stories are not being told? (A story without a useful film-clip is unlikely to make it onto the TV news. And complex stories which take time to understand don't fit the rules of narrative that rule the newsrooms.) Peter Watkins argues that these questions aren't asked enough in departments of media studies. I expect he's right. But outside the world of the media and media studies, these questions aren't asked at all.

I can't outline the huge scope of media studies. There are areas and debates of which I'm barely aware - and probably some I couldn't begin to understand. The practical skills some media students acquire - from storyboarding to sound recording to website design - require a range of abilities. I'm most aware of the work of media studies in film and cinema history. At times - as in studies of the documentary movement - it overlaps with literary, music and art history. And then media students use debates about society - about the treatment of class, race, gender, etc. - and apply them to their analysis.

For instance, in the clip below from Mervyn LeRoy's film, Gold Diggers of 1933, the media studies student would be able to use a range of approaches. It would be possible, using Peter Watkins, to consider how the intensity of the film - its use of music, the Busby Berkeley choreography, and the potency of its visual images and editing - make it hard to disagree with what it says. The power of the song is particularly strange given its place in the film - it is presented as a song in a stage show but it becomes something more powerful and political. An approach looking at the treatment of race and gender might note that something complex is happening. The song is sung by two women - Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Although Etta Moten has the better, more powerful voice, the central role is given to the white woman, Joan Blondell. Etta Moten's name doesn't even appear in the credits. And while the words of the song say that women are dependent on men, the men's individuality gradually blurs them from objects of admiration and pity into a pattern on a screen. Meanwhile the historical approach would tell how the film picks up a famous speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt and sets its key phrase to music. And the historian might also have something to say about the film's original audience: mostly poor, suffering from the effects of the Depression and entering the luxury of the cinema in search of escape, hope and happy endings.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The brave people of Sark

There has been an election on the small island of Sark. The Barclay brothers, who own a number of businesses on the island insisted. The Barclay brothers are billionaires who own a number of businesses on Sark as well as a nearby island. They cast themselves as the defenders of democracy.

Shortly before the vote took place, the Barclay brothers issued threats against the voters of Sark. The Barclay brothers wanted their own candidates to win. They therefore warned the voters of Sark that they would withdraw their investments, causing poverty among the islanders, if the islanders voted
in a way the Barclay brothers didn't like. This threat was published in the Daily Telegraph, which the Barclay brothers own.

The people of Sark voted for the candidates they wanted. And now the Barclay brothers have announced that they are closing all their businesses on Sark, making 100 people - a sixth of the island's population - unemployed.

The people of Sark showed that their understanding of democracy was far better than that of the Barclay brothers. They refused to be bribed or blackmailed into voting as the Barclay brothers wished.

I have occasionally bought The Daily Telegraph. As long as the Barclay brothers own it, I shall never buy it again. People who try to bribe and blackmail voters in the exercise of their democratic rights are not fit to own a newspaper.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


A month or so again it was still warm. That's when I saw him: a stocky, cheerful, black-bearded man smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback book. He looked as though he was enjoying life. And that struck me because he was snuggled in a sleeping bag beneath a blanket in a shop doorway. He had half an hour or so till the shop would open and was enjoying the his daylight solitude.

It's not hard to see rough-sleepers in any town if you get up early. There's an underpass which usually houses one or two men (usually men, sometimes women) who, on cold nights, burrow deep into their sleeping bags so that only their hair or a woolly hat is visible. Every so often the underpass floods and the sleepers aren't there any more. I don't know where they go.

I don't know where they go in the snow and hard frosts we've had in the past fortnight. There are hostels - but not many - and I've heard that some rough-sleepers are frightened of them. The people who use them are sometimes drunk or mentally ill. People who are homeless have rarely had a comfortable, secure past.

I don't know what to do to help rough sleepers. I know money would help, because it would provide warmth, which must be a major need. But money is short in a time of financial crisis - people (including me) cling to what they have.

Most vulnerable of all are the asylum seekers forced into destitution because their claims for help have been refused. Some fear deportation - what they fear must be terrible if they choose homelessness and near-starvation in preference. Failed asylum seekers are forbidden to work, forbidden to claim benefits, forced to beg for survival. A local organisation hands out supplies but it doesn't have much money. Destitute asylum seekers are given a bag of food a week if they can find somewhere to cook it or £2.50 a week if they cannot.

Meanwhile, we prepare to celebrate Christmas. The story tells of a young couple forced to shelter in a stable because there is nowhere else for them to sleep. Later, with a small baby, they seek asylum in Egypt because they fear persecution at home.

When the shops open, the rough sleepers move on. The Christmas carols mingle with more recent songs in the city centres.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Why not to write a poem

I was "commended" in a poetry competition. It put me in the top 5% and stated, accurately, that my poem wasn't good enough to win. There's something depressing about that. It was depressing, too, to attend the public adjudication alone. I left having spoken to four or five people, briefly - the people sitting on either side of me, who were friendly; a poet I recognized and a couple of people who gave me directions. I felt worse after leaving than after arriving, even though I'd read and heard some good poems.

That probably says a lot about my mood - perhaps I gave off an aura of unapproachability. It's more likely that the society members running the competition wanted to meet and talk with old friends. I was an outsider and felt all the shyness that implies.

Writing a poem can be a compulsion rather than a pleasure, though it's a relief to put it aside, more or less finished. Just before I submitted this poem for the competition, I realised it wasn't finished and did some more work on it. Since then, I've restored some of the earlier version. It's not quite right. I preferred the other poems I submitted - the ones that weren't commended.

I don't know why I write poems and I can't remember when I started. I just know that I've been playing with words for as long as I can remember and have never given it as much time as I would like. I've spent most of my life trying to conceal this embarrassing little habit.

But these days quite a few people have found out about the poems, though they mostly have the friendly tact to remain silent on the subject. I also get to talk to poets quite often - mostly not about poetry - and enjoy reading their work. I'm fortunate to know Pam Thompson who posts several poems a month on her blog. It made me wonder about posting a poem of my own.

This is the commended poem and I'm not making great claims for it.- But sometimes poems give pleasure even when they aren't great. And I have an affection for this because I wrote it when I was staying all alone in a friend's caravan in Llansteffan. I was thinking of the villages abandoned so that they could be flooded for reservoirs. And I was also thinking of what happens to language when people move to a new place.

After the Valley Was Flooded

Having left, she learned again the shape of fields,
new names for birds, the way another town
clung to the hillside, then fanned out
running roads across slopes, drawing trains
from powerful cities. Marrying, she became fluent
in her new place, as rivers were
the same and not the same, altering course.

There was a blue brooch once, lost for ever
on a careless morning, rocks for children
who climbed and laughed as gulls called,
a father’s crumpling smile – all different
in this new world where old shapes lost their force.
At night, she dreamed of distant bells. By day
the unused words twisted about her heart.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Mrs Minns

The photos say it all. The 19th century maids may be wearing caps and aprons - even carrying a kettle to show their "service" - but they are dressed in their best for the picture. They gaze out, confidently or nervously, holding the required pose before resuming their complex, interesting lives. They are hard-working women whose leisure activities and concerns for friendship and family cannot be shown in this photo.

If a 19th century photo can show women domestic workers as human beings, why do writers in the 21st century still get it so wrong?

I've been listening, casually, to the P.D. James serial on Radio 4. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I don't turn it off. It follows The Archers and Front Row and I leave the radio on so that I can catch the 8.00 p.m. news headlines.

The serial is one of the later novels featuring James's posh, poetic detective Adam Dalgliesh. I used to read P.D. James. She created an early woman private investigator and I liked the idea of combining crime and poetry. Buit gradually P.D. James' take on class began to grate on me. In the end I couldn't bear to read her any more. The radio serial has reminded me just what is wrong with her writing.

The victim in this serial is a politician - posh and sensitive like James's detective. But the investigation, as usual, means interviewing the servants. The other evening an entire episode featured an interview with the victim's cleaner.

I had to listen. The first thing I learnt was that the cleaner lived in a council flat - just like my mum, who also worked as a cleaner. When I was growing up I knew lots of cleaners who lived on the estate. (For the benefit of P.D. James, that's a council estate, not the kind of estate owned by the landed gentry.) I enjoyed their conversation about their employers - it was gossipy and satrical. The wealthy employers were good material for a laugh, before talk moved onto more serious topics: politcs, family, books, television, etc.

Of course, the cleaner created by P.D. James was there for a purpose - to provide a clue to the mystery. But upper and middle-class characters in James' mysteries have complex lives and face ethical dilemmas. The cleaner didn't. She was called Mrs Minns - such a stock name for a domestic worker that it's also used by Enid Blyton in the first of her Famous Five books. And listening to the interview with Mrs Minns, as created by P.D. James, I longed for the ethical complexity of Enid Blyton.

Mrs Minns was not a character with a credible independent existence. She was an attribute of her employer - her role was to admire him. It was impossible to believe there had ever been a Mr Minns because people who get married are human beings with human emotions and Mrs Minns was a cardboard cut-out. (I've seen cardboard cut-outs who are more convincingly human.)

Mrs Minns' role involved the discovery of a book. It was, of course, a trashy romance with a lurid cover. My mum's favourite authors include Dickens, Shakespeare, Moliere, Plato, Borges and late 20th century magic realists - but that would be too much complexity for P.D. James to handle. Cardboard cut-out cleaners don't enjoy literature or art or think about politics - they leave that to real cleaners.

By the end of the episode I was angry. How could the BBC perpetuate this travesty of characterisation - this lack of literary imagination?

Before blogged about it, I had to be sure that it mattered. So I thought it through.

It matters that we see other human beings as complex individuals. Seeing people as cardboard cut-outs is dangerously close to seeing them as sub-human. If people are treated as sub-human, no-one will care what happens to them. We're already close to that when thinking of people on council estates. The government is threatening to move families out of their council homes, as a punishment for being unemployed or being too successful. This policy assumes that people in council estates aren't attached to their homes, communities or schools - are mere units who don't matter and can be moved around the country for political convenience. (But I, my brother and my parents were not sub-human. We loved our council-flat home.) P.D. James' fictions feed into current anti-working class prejudice and policies.

P.D. James is also in a position of power. She has been a magistrate. She has been a governor of the BBC. As Baroness James of Holland Park (an unelected member of the House of Lords) she is a lawmaker - she speaks and votes on matters that affect the people she fails to see as complex, interesting individuals.

Mrs Minns is not just a failure of literary skills. She's a failure of human understanding. She shows that P.D. James' grasp of ethics is dangerously narrow.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Odd jobs

I hope the owner of this toolbox doesn't mind that I've borrowed the picture. It comes from a page of pictures of a garage workshop - and I love workshops like this. They remind me of my dad, who is not just intelligent but skilled at all kinds of craft. Even in the flat where I grew up, he assembled a range of tools, with small items like nuts and drillbits kept carefully in Golden Virginia tobacco tins.

I wish I had the practical skills of my parents - or that my school had taught me useful things like woodworking. But these were seen as boys' skills. The idea was that we girls would marry. We would sew and cook for husbands and children but husbands would do the repairs. The boys' school included woodwork and metalwork on the curriculum; my brother produced a poker and toasting fork, which were things of beauty but of little use in our centrally-heated flat.

When the cat-flap shattered in a fierce wind, I realised I had to do something about it. I may know that the first reference to a catflap comes in Chaucer (the Miller's Tale) but I had no idea how to fit one. At first I worried. Then I asked my son to choose a new one of about the same size. It arrived with incomprehensible illustrations that were suppsoed to indicate how to fit it. I gave up looking and began to piece the catflap parts together for myself. After a while it seemed clear. I went to the shed to look for the drill and discovered I no longer had one. Fortunately a neighbour lent me a drill, a crewdriver and a pair of pliers. It was a fine, hand-held drill - like the one my Dad has. I cracked, peeled and unscrewed the wreckage of the old catflap and my son and I went to work.

Together we marked the places where the new screws would go and took turns at the drilling. It wasn't easy - the holes had to be very close to the edge of the gap and it's hard to drill at the bottom of a door. I was glad that my son did most of the work but felt quite pleased that I was also playing a useful part. I've never fitted a catflap before.

Gradually we got it in place - not particularly skilfully as one of the screws is crooked. But fitting it at all seemed like an achievement - and a great improvement on the hole in the back door. Joe didn't approve, however. He had thought the hole much better than a catflap - easier to manage. He looked at the new contraption unconvincedly and tried to persuade us to open the door instead.

It's not a great catflap but it has three advantages: it's transparent, it has a magnet which stops it from flapping in the wind, and it can be sealed with a small plastic sheet that holds it shut. I'm not sure Joe sees these as advantages.

Odd jobs proliferate. The washing-line snapped under the weight of sodden sheets which I hung up just before a downpour. We need a new backdoor - and the garden is in a desperate state. Unfortunately work is busier than ever and after 11-hour days I find it hard to summon the energy for anything else, except fencing, which seems to have a brief energising effect. Yesterday my Chinese horoscope urged me to do sport or "relaxing activities like odd jobs." The odd jobs didn't seem particularly relaxing. I chose fencing. They didn't teach that at my school either.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The smell of gunpowder

I'd forgotten the date. I didn't stay up late for the U.S. election results but went to sleep with the radio on and accepted a friend's offer to ring me when the outcome was clear. It made for a restless night and tired day. There were tired people everywhere, many exuberant with delight at news of Obama's victory. I was relieved - the thought of President Palin terrified me - but the news was shadowed by memories of 1997, when the election of Tony Blair felt like the lifting of a nightmare.

I stumbled through the day, giving way to clumsy mistakes. I was unsurprised to find that the train home would be half an hour late. All the trains were delayed after a fire alarm at St Pancras. Half an hour didn't seem too bad. It even gave me an opportunity to catch my breath and do some work in the station cafe (the waiting room was full).

I continued to work on the train, then swept everything into my bag as I reached my stop. And as I walked out into the dark drizzle, the smell reached me - gunpowder. "The fifth of November," I recalled, and a rush of thoughts and memories hit me. I couldn't reconcile them.

As an adult, I can't ignore the Guy Fawkes story: torture, fear, violence, orchestrated hatred. The bonfires once recalled that as clearly as any Chamber of Horrors. But it's all mutated into something both cosier and more anarchic: family participation in firework displays and celebrations. Fireworks Day is also bound up with childhood memories: the bonfire in the field, cold, gloved hands clasping the thin wire of sparklers, the small rocket placed carefully in a milk bottle, gasps of delight as the tiny catherine wheel sparks into a multi-coloured blur.

I love firework displays. I love the sudden blazing chrysanthemums that bloom for seconds then fade against a velvet-dark sky. I love the frisson of fear at the scream of swooping rockets - even the range of pops and earth-shaking thuds that recall tales of mud and anguish on the western front. I wanted to go to a firework display or party. But I couldn't. I was going fencing - and I didn't want to leave the cat for long.

Fortunately Joe doesn't seem too worried by fireworks - or not when he's indoors. Sometimes he sits up, alert, in case he's called on the defend the house - and he's not as settled as usual. He didn't like the early lock-in either. But instead of worrying, he curled up in one of his favourite places - the bathroom wash-basin - and settled down to sleep.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Wanting more

Beneath the layers of sentimentalism, Oliver Twist is a story of child abuse. This gets lost in the famous musical adaptation where Harry Secombe is a cuddly Mr Bumble and Ron Moody a witty, affectionate Fagin.

The new adaptation I caught in Derby last Friday was clear about the violence and brutality. Oliver was caught in the government-ordered cruelty of the workhouse and escaped to the similar cruelties of Fagin and Bill Sikes. Starvation, violence, prison and execution were more probable for children than the luck of meeting a generous philanthropist. And Nancy wasn't a cheerful tart with a heart but a desperate young woman in the clutches of her pimp, who had been one of Fagin's child-thieves at the age of six and moved into prostitution as the next step.

Adaptations of Dickens have to decide which plots to include and which to omit. For those who know the original novel, this included Monks and omitted Rose Maylie. If you don't know who they are, you can easily find out. People in the audience who had never read the novel gasped at some of the twists in the plot so I'm not planning to give it away.

Oliver Twist is still relevant. A programme note mentioned the way some of today's politicians blame the poor for everything that goes wrong in their life. It made me realise that today Oliver would be wearing a hoodie while the Artful Dodger would be glorying in a string of ASBOs.

But while it would be easy to update the plot, this version kept the story in its original setting. The first episodes were published in the months before Victoria came to the throne and it belongs to the violent class antagonisms of that time. In particular, the book attacks the inhumanity of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, driven in part by the desire to punish "bastardy" - that's why Oliver is illegitimate. This version echoed this theme by emphasising the role of Oliver's young mother, driven to run away from a sense of shame and guilt.

There are songs too. Lionel Bart's songs have a lot going for them. They express a working-class determination to survive and celebrate - but they're a long way from Dickens. The songs in this play expressed radical criticism of injustice and inequality. I don't think Dickens would ever have sung such songs but the reminder of the anger that fuelled them said something about the audience of Dickens' novels. Anyone who finds Dickens' story too violent, extreme and sentimental should try G.W. M. Reynolds' monumental Mysteries of London, which became a much larger seller just ten years later. But that's another story - or, to be accurate, a compendium of interweaving stories - and far longer and more melodramatic than anything Dickens wrote.

Note: I wanted to find links to the songs from the play, since I think they may come from the period and they would have shown the contrast with Lionel Bart. But I couldn't find them. So I'm linking to Chumbawamba singing two songs which are probably a year or two later than Oliver Twist: The Chartist Anthem and Poverty Knock (which is from the north of England, not London). They're the nearest I can get.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Cycling on the pavement

A cracked tooth meant a visit to the dentist and my failure to get up early meant I had to get there on my bike. There's no quick bus route - and I'd left it too late to walk.

The area is criss-crossed with cycle paths. They take engaging little detours and, every so often, allow cyclists to go in the opposite direction to the traffic. I'm pleased there are cycle paths but I'm never entirely sure where they go. Occasionally there are helpful signs with words like "university" but usually they point vaguely in the direction of some large area I don't wish to visit. I cycle to fencing, swords and all, and wouldn't do that without the helpful cycle path, but apart from that I tend to do what I've always done - share the road with cars and lorries.

However, I was heading towards the dentist in the rush hour and the lorries were closer than I liked. I vaguely remembered a cycle path I'd used before and, when I saw a sign, decided to risk getting lost.

I found myself cycling through quiet residential streets and little twitchells (or jitties, as narrow alley ways are more commonly called in this part of the world - "twitchell" is the posh usage). No-one was driving and hardly anyone was about. And then I was back on the main road and the tiniest section of tarmac was marked out for cycles. The roundabout had no cycle path at all. I think I was supposed to get off and cross at the lights but I've been cycling round roundabouts for as long as I've been cycling and used to enjoy crossing three lanes of cars at Marble Arch before the traffic lights were instituted.

The slope was a bit too much for me, though it's fun going down, and I pushed my bike part of the way. After reaching the dentist on time and experiencing some remarkably pain-free treatment, I decided to try more cycle paths on my return. I hadn't brought a jacket and realised the heavy drizzle was going to leave me damp - I didn't want to be sprayed by cars rushing through puddles.

I had to look carefully for the cyclepath signs. First I needed to find the start of a path so I looked for the small, black signposts. It took me a while to find one and at first I wasn't sure where I was supposed to cycle. Then I saw the white, painted cycle symbol on the pavement, almost covered by wet yellow leaves. The leaves were a problem since half the pavement was allocated to pedestrians and half to cyclists - the fallen leaves meant that I couldn't see where the division was. There may have been arrows too and more signs but the rain and leaves made it hard to find the way. The track led from pavement to jitty and then, every so often, took a narrow section of the road - at times the section seemed narrower than my handlebars though I suppose it must have been broader than that.

It wasn't easy. Every so often I found myself cycling on the pavement and then seeing that the cycle path had taken a different, parallel route. Eventually all bikes were directed on a route I didn't want to take, so I wheeled my bike alongside the main road until the turning off I needed.

At least I didn't hit anyone when I found myself cycling on the pavement - and no-one tried to arrest me. I wonder if "leaves on the sign" would count as a defence in court.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Incitement to murder

Last week I found myself listening to Billie Holiday on CD. She was singing "Strange Fruit," the song written by Abel Meeropol. It takes on a painful life in Billie Holiday's performance, sung by a woman who knew the daily cruelties of racism from direct experience.

I had to explain what the song was about and did this briefly, without details. The truth of lynchings in the former slave-states of America really is too horrible. Billie Holiday's voice recalls the way lynchings were experienced by the black descendants of slaves. And the photographs tell us how the white members of lynch mobs and their families experienced these occasions.

These days the photos are so upsetting that it takes me a while to ask the important question: who took the photographs and why? When I look at photographs of lynchings (it's hard to look - I flinch and look away after seeing one or two) I can't look at the dangling, disfigured corpses so I start to look at the people standing by.

Usually the white people are aware of the camera. They're posing - looking back at the photographer. Sometimes they are men, putting on a stern appearance. But often the crowds are a mixture of men and women, dressed in their good clothes for the occasion. Sometimes there's a party atmosphere. Often children are present - some quite small.

The pictures were taken as souvenirs, just like the pictures in Abu Ghraib. They were often sent as postcards and kept by the people who received them. That's why the evidence has survived. Looking at the pictures again - just a glimpse - and focussing on the white crowds, I see no evidence of anger or shame.

Watching the American elections from Britain, I'm strongly aware of this history of brutal, violent racism. It's not exclusive to the United States. Britons, with their colonial past, have no cause for smug self-congratulation. Many Britons were, like me, amazed and admiring to discover that the United States had moved so far from its past that a major political party could nominate a black man as a presidential candidate - and were impressed to see that Barack Obama was ahead in the polls. A country overcoming the racism of its past might be an example to the world.

Recent news from the McCain-Palin campaign has therefore come as a shock. At first John McCain's team were polite, aware of the dangers to their opponent and their country. There's a history of assassination in the United States and Barack Obama was given secret service protection early last year - before he'd secured the nomination .

But since the selection of Sarah Palin as vice-president, the Republican campaign has turned nasty.

At first, the selection of Sarah Palin seemed a brilliant move. She looked like a fighter against corruption as well as someone who would bring in the Christian evangelical voters who were suspicious of McCain. I didn't like her politics but I thought she might be honest. I worried about stories of attempted censorship in a public library but the truth was unclear. I thought I'd better give her the benefit of the doubt. Then I heard about her lies - even about Darfur - sickened me. But I assumed it was just politics as usual - and not in my country. While I think Obama would probably be preferable to McCain, I have doubts. I follow his campaign with interest but I'm not an Obama supporter.

Reports of recent Republican rallies
are another matter. The stories are raging through the British press. Members of the audience are shouting out "Kill him!" "Terrorist!", "Treason!" and "Off with his head" when McCain, Palin and members of their team attack Barack Obama. No-one has disowned or condemned those comments - John McCain and Sarah Palin's team simply move to the next rally, repeat the same attacks and encourage the same responses. Defenders of the Republican campaign say that these calls come from isolated, unhinged individuals. But it's often isolated and unhinged individuals who become assassins.

From here, the latest Republican campaign speeches are beginning to sound like incitement to murder. And the smiling faces of supporters at Republican rallies - and the cheers that greet every fresh smear and innuendo - are beginning to recall those well-dressed, respectable families who brought their children to attend the lynchings of black youths - and smiled for for the camera.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Iceland and the axis of evil

"The half wit does not know that gold
Makes apes of many men:
One is rich, one is poor,
There is no blame in that.

Those words, translated by W.H. Auden and Paul B. Taylor, come from 'Hávamál', also known as 'The Words of the High.' The earliest manuscript version comes from around the year 800 but the poem probably pre-dates Christianity in Iceland as the words are ascribed to the god Odin.

I've wanted to visit Iceland for many years - even before I saw pictures its mountains, plains and geysirs. The starting point was Auden and MacNeice's travel book, Letters from Iceland, which combines comedy with an underlying seriousness - Iceland is a place of sanity in a world rapidly going mad.

The Iceland Auden and MacNeice visited was a relatively poor country. Since I've wanted to go there, it has seemed too expensive. Every so often I leaf through a travel brochure or visit tourist websites and then the prices deter me. I don't want a weekend break - I want to see Iceland properly and learn enough of the language to get by, but that's far too expensive.

Britain's relationship with Iceland has been awkward. I remember the antagonisms of the Cod Wars, especially the third Cod War in which Iceland claimed that its unilateral extension to its coastal waters was an attempt to stop overfishing. Iceland may have had a point as the seas have certainly been overfished since then, but Icelanders were portrayed in the press as unpleasant, violent people trying to grab territory from poor British fishermen.

Later the image changed - the Icelanders were cool, sophisticated people wandering through trendy Reykjavik and swimming in the Blue Lagoon. I was never quite convinced by that. I had, at least, glanced at a copy of a novel by Halld
ór Laxness and the Icelandic people he described didn't seem quite like that.

I hadn't noticed the rise of Icelandic banks. I don't worry too much about where my money is held, so long as the bank operates efficiently. I know I ought to take more trouble about ethical accounts but I've been defeated by the effort entailed in switching to the Co-op, though I do have an ISA with Triodos. The safety of money seems a matter of luck and quite beyond my control - if it vanishes, I'll have to do without it.

The crash in Iceland took me by surprise and the ripples shook me. I hadn't realised Icelandic companies owned so much - or, it turned out, owned less than nothing. The assets seem to be cancelled out by liabilities and the government has stopped trading on the stock exchange and presided over the closure of the banks.

Poor Iceland - it seems that the country is in debt to the rest of the world. That debt amounts to £116,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. And Gordon Brown is threatening to sue for British assets.

I don't know how one country sues another. I don't know how Iceland is supposed to pay the rest of the world for the money lost by its banks. I can see that there's an argument about where the money should be, just as there was with Lehman Brothers. Lehman was accused of sending money out of Britain to privilege debtors in the United States - but Lehman is old news now.

I'm slightly shocked to find that the British government is using anti-terrorism legislation against Iceland. At 10.00 this morning, Gordon Brown enacted a Statutory Instrument under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. It was called the Landsbanksi Freezing Order 2001 and it came into force 10 minutes later - one hour and fifty minutes before it was laid before Parliament. The Home Office website is clear on the purposes of the Act. It was introduced to "cut off terrorist funding" and improve security. It was even meant to aid European co-operation. And it was introduced in response to the shock of 9/11, without the detailed debate and analysis that would be usual.

It may be necessary to act quickly on funds. But we were told that this law, like so many others, was introduced to keep us safe from terrorists - to prevent another 9/11. Has Iceland suddenly joined the Axis of Evil?

I find I'm impressed by the behaviour of ordinary Icelanders, as reported on the BBC. And there's something moving about the behaviour of the Icelandic rock star, Bubbi Morthens, who convened and performed at a free concert opposite the parliament building, asking people to stand together. Bubbi Morthens has lost money too. He spoke of a "new reality" and the possibility of a "new dawn". The language is too vague for me to be sure about what he means - there could be implications I've missed. But this does seem a time for people to stand together and face reality - and to think about how society must change. I just hope that what emerges is a more just and kinder society.

Meanwhile, here's Bubbi Morthens performing in Copenhagen (mostly in English) in 2007.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Girl number 20

There's something addictive about watching the little red figures change. Every so often they flicker into green for an hour or so. Sometimes a day ends with the figures locked into green. Then the descent begins again.

The stock markets are so remote from what really matters that it's hard to see the probable effect of the descending numbers. It seems as though the effects will be felt first by the rich and irresponsible. Those who made money gambling on the markets may have to do without new fur coats this year. They may cut their fleet of limousines, sell a country house or travel business class instead of hiring a private jet.

The rest of us have less to lose - but it looks as though what we own may be at risk. Those who obediently followed the advice of the government or experts may suddenly find themselves unable to take money from their bank, without pensions, without insurance - even without their home. In an economy built on debt and luxury services, jobs are beginning to crumble just as prices rise. So much of what we take for granted has been made in sweatshops overseas, at prices we thought we controlled - now it turns out that the market doesn't always run in our favour. The producers are beginning to take control and raising their prices. Soon we'll be looking around for our manufacturing industry and wondering where it went. We may even be asking why the coal mines were closed if we can't afford to import the fuel we need. We'll wonder what happened to the farms.

Or perhaps, suddenly and for no apparent reason, the markets will settle, banks will be able to borrow vast sums of money again - and will urge us to borrow it - and we'll get back to where we were before, thinking that we're rich.

I wander down the High Street wondering how safe the shops are and which will be there next week, let alone next year. A couple of weeks ago I set out with my son to buy him a birthday present at his favourite music shop. The shop had been there for years, staffed by dedicated workers who spent many of their evenings practising, teaching and playing folk music. The shop was a busy wonderland of instruments that careful visitors were allowed to play. I was startled to hear my son trying a harp for the first time and picking out a Christmas carol. There were sitars and Chinese lutes as well as banjos, guitars, violins and a basement given over to wind instruments. My son did work experience there and learnt to re-string his guitar and take a clarinet to pieces for cleaning. Then, suddenly, the shop was gone. Only a few cardboard boxes and a harp stood in the window. There were a few notices but no explanation. I wish I knew where the staff were. I'll never forget the kindness with which they showed my son new chords on the guitar and encouraged his playing.

There are so many small shops, set up by helpful optimists. They were encouraged by a climate which urged people to become entrepreneurs and work for themselves. They invested their life savings and so many hours in a dream - sometimes starting from scratch and sometimes paying for a franchise. But as jobs go and savings lose their value, who can afford beauty treatments, frothy coffee, fancy cakes, crystals, strings of glittering beads? Even food retailers find it hard to compete with supermarkets - and will find it harder to keep going. I fear Tesco has more chance of survival than the local greengrocer. (Our cheese shop, with its splendid array of British cheeses, closed years ago, despite its loyal customers. Apparently not quite enough of us transferred our custom from the big supermarket. I wish I'd known how close the battle was and I'd have encouraged all my friends to shop there.)

Even the big shops are at risk. Many seem to have been owned by Icelandic companies and, as Iceland goes bust, the companies (including Hamleys, Woolworth, Moss Bros and House of Fraser) are being "let go". I wonder who has money - or will risk the debt - to take them over. Perhaps they will be lost like the names of the past: Lilley and Skinner, Mackintosh sweets and all the rest.

For the moment, I'm more or less untouched. So far as I know, I still have money in the bank - and it's a small enough quantity to be, in theory, safeguarded by the government. In theory I can still look forward to a pension. What will really happen, if the crash is very bad, I don't know.

I keep looking back to prosperous times, only a few months ago, and for some reason I keep remember the lesson the children were taught in Charles Dickens' Hard Times which is, among other things, a critique of political economy. Mr M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster, is trying to teach a class of children what prosperity is. Most of the children learn their lesson but girl number 20, Sissy Jupe fails to get the point. Asked if a country with "fifty millions of money" is a prosperous nation, she can only reply, "
I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine." Mr M'Choakumchild persists, urging Sissy to imagine the schoolroom an immense town "and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?" Sissy responds, "I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million." But that, she is told, is the wrong answer. What matters is the prosperity of the nation as a whole and not who has the money or whether some people starve.

Our prosperous country hasn't just ignored the suffering of the poor in recent years. Mockery of the poor has become widespread while wealth, however acquired, has been a passport to fame and respect. Now it looks as though we're headed into the storm.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Saying au revoir

It's a week since I saw my daughter off to university and I still haven't got used to her absence.

She, of course, is having a lovely time. The first week is full of socialising and she seems to have settled in straight away. But here the house seems a bit empty at times.

These days, children grow up late. My mum started full-time work in a glove factory (five and a half days a week, cutting thumb-pieces) when she was still thirteen. In the 1930s most children left school at the end of the term before their fourteenth birthdays. This began to change with the war, when children were evacuated from the towns and cities. Later, the 1944 Education Act came into force, and 15 became the school leaving age.

My scholarship to boarding school took me away from home at 9 so at 19 I was eager for the freedom of university. I had a grant (my parents paid a little towards it - as much as they could afford) and knew that my fees were paid by the state. I felt independent but of course there were college rules. There were college servants too - an alarming concept but the people who worked as porters, scouts and kitchen staff were comfortingly familiar in many ways. My mother and many of her friends had been cleaners at the local college. In Oxford people doing the same sort of job called me "Miss" which disturbed me.

I had no problem that people served me meals in the college dining hall. I found it very helpful indeed that someone cleaned my room. But when cooks and cleaners called me "Miss", I found it hard to thank them as equals. I was relieved to notice that "Miss" or "Sir" could, on occasion, be said with a sneer. The college servants were not servile. Their thoughts and opinions of us weren't far below their surface deference.

These days students need lifts to university to transport all their luggage. These days most accommodation is self-catering and lists of "items required" include saucepans and crockery. Students are expected to provide duvets as well as sheets - plus books, stationery, computer, clothes - while the boot and shoe collection seems to require a whole suitcase to itself. The car was crammed but somehow my daughter fitted herself into the passenger seat. I stood on the pavement and waved goodbye.

That is, I suppose, what being a parent is all about. Years ago a terrific English teacher called Kathleen Betterton brought a poem by C. Day Lewis into our class. It was called "Walking Away" and, at the time, it wasn't the poem that made an impact on me but Mrs Betterton's feelings for the poem. She talked particularly about the final lines and I realise now that it talked of something she - and all our parents - had experienced. I was too young to get it.

C. Day Lewis wrote the poem about his son Sean's first day at school. It details the child's hesitancy from the point of view of the watching adult and ends with the lines:

"... selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go."

Friday, 19 September 2008

Box 45

There wasn't a crisp in sight.

There wasn't a football player either.

I'd hoped I'd get to watch the team practise but there were just two men with lawn mowers moving up and down, trimming the grass of the pitch into neat, broad stripes.

It was a meeting for work - an all-day meeting - and we were booked into Box 45 at the nearby football stadium. I don't know whose idea it was but it was the first time I've ever visited this ground. Football used to be cheap, I believe, but these days it's more expensive than opera.

I've only been to two proper matches and both were at the City Ground where, confusingly, Notts County plays. I went with my son because there were newspaper vouchers for cheap tickets for primary-age children and their parents. I loved it all - the occasional skill of the players (these days County isn't a great team), the sudden switches between mild boredom and intense excitement, the partisan cheers and witty comments when the ref's decision caused surprise.

Our seats were in the family stand, which is supposed to be the safe area, but neither match seemed dangerous. At one, County fans were rather depressed because the team was in immediate danger of relegation. Fortunately they weren't relegated that week though they did go down at the end of the season. The other was, I suspect, rather routine. But I wanted to join in the shouts and chants. I even wanted to express my disapproval of the ref after one bemussing decision, but my son found that too embarrassing. I couldn't follow the match as clearly as I could on television but it had a quality of rough immediacy. I felt I almost belonged.

After my son lost interest in football, I haven't been back. I don't think I want to see a Premiership match - there's not much opportunity of that, so it's just as well. But the less perfect playing of a lower division suits me well.

The Walkers Stadium, where Leicester play, is big, clean and glossy. There's even a restaurant called "Fusions". We moved along carpeted corridors, decorated with big, shiny photographs of teams and audiences in years past. Some of the recent photos seems style without content. "Look, he can do photoshop," one colleague commented. But the photos of teams of the 1930s and '40s looked like real football with serious, grown-up football players instead of the glamour stars of today. (I know that's a superficial judgment. I like the players in the older photos because they remind me of my dad.)

We were in Box 45 - the one box, so far as I could see, that give access to the outside. We watched the pitch and the mowers through huge picture windows. We weren't discussing football but something else entirely.

All day the mowers moved up and down, working, making sure the bright green pitch was clean and neat.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

The watchers and the watched

It began as a lecture - about psychology. Against the backdrop of a clinic the doctor and his assistant introduced themselves and then, with smug authority, brought on their patient, pyjama-clad and shambling.

Of course, we knew it was a play. This was Nottingham Playhouse. We had tickets for Vertigo - not the Hitchcock film but the French novel on which it was based, adapted for the stage by Jonathan Holloway. Butfrom the start our role as audience was uneasy - we were spectators of a disturbed man who seemed unaware of our presence.

Gradually we were absorbed into the story ... then, from time to time, jolted out of it. Ben Keaton, as Roger the patient, moved from semi-consciousness into apparent alertness as he enacted his past. But in all this he was under hypnosis - paraded before us by the doctor treating him. For most of the first act he remained in pyjamas while appearing suave and confident; the doctor and nurse moved in and out of other roles - to show us how things were. At times the doctor would return his patient to sleep so that he could underline a point for us, the viewers.

It's a tale of fear and obsession that begins in Paris in 1940. German troops threaten inavsion. Roger's outward confidence masks guilt and uncertainty; he's an ex-policeman whose fear of heights led to the death of a colleague. He takes on the job of following Medeleine, the delicate young wife of a rich older man. First he just watches and begins to idealise her. Then he finds himself forced into an action which makes her acknowledge his presence. As he spends more time with Madeleine, Roger's obsession deepens. Who is exerting power, the doctor asks us, the watcher or the watched?

The story twists unexpectedly, leaps past the Occupation and introduces an uneasy post-war France. Sympathies switch. We remain uneasy as watchers but we remain transfixed because there is so much we need to know.

I don't want to give away the plot. We went to the first preview. The press night is next Tuesday. But it's gripping theatre - and as sinister and shocking as any film noir. From my second-row seat I felt like a voyeur - failing to intervene because I wanted to know how the story would end.

I saw the play with my teenage children - a last family outing before my daughter departs for university. I'm glad to see that Nottingham Playhouse still has the cheap tickets and special offers that make a family outing possible. The Playhouse wasn't quite full but the audience was rapt and thrilled. And I'm glad to report that my daughter - an enthusiastic theatre-goer - reckons it one of the best productions she's ever seen.

Note: The play is a reworking of a touring production by Red Shift. I note that the smaller production reached the Wyeside in Builth Wells earlier this year, giving audiences in Powys a chance to see outstanding theatre. It's a shame that the long-term future of the Wyeside - an outstanding small arts centre - remains uncertain. I hope the campaign to save the Wyeside secures its long-term future.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A tour of the blogosphere

Yvonne from Nemeton has nominated me for this I Love Your Blog award. I gather that I should link back to her and also nominate some blogs that I enjoy.

The idea seems to be that I should nominate further blogs and link to them, and let the authors know I have done so. I think I'm supposed to nominate at least seven.

I've decided not to nominate Nemeton back, simply because it was the source of this nomination. However, I recommend readers to read the blog and learn more about all sorts of things, including science, literature,. peace and paganism.

When I started blogging, on the assumption that no-one would read what I wrote, I took fencing as my subject. After a while, I found other fencing blogs.

The first of these was Elizabeth McClung's Screw Bronze! - I loved her determination and humour. She was doing much better at fencing than I was and, as I read, she published her novel, Zed. Beth wrote about all sorts of other subjects too. I learnt about her spouse, Linda, about her childhood in a strict fundamentalist sect, and a great deal about manga, anime and Japan. Since I started reading, Beth fenced in the Canadian nationals and was improving at a startling rate. Then she became seriously ill. Now in a wheelchair she takes on the routine abuse of people with disabilities and faces her own death with even greater courage and determination thnt she once showed as a fencer. Her honesty about her pain and her emotions is startling. She also shows great generosity in her concern for others.

Beth recommended I read a blog by another older fencer who calls himself The Gray Epee. Jim, the author, is based in North Carolina, and his blog is probably only of interest to fencers. But fencers will find his account of club fencing and tournaments in his part of the United States fascinating. There are also occasional insights into his tastes in music and references to his wife and children, whom he plainly loves.

Two of the blogs I'm nominating are what I think of as "public blogs". Of course, all blogs are public but these two have a profile beyond the blogosphere.

The first is Craig Murray's blog, to which I've already linked in the past. For those of you who don't know who he is, Craig Murray is the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who lost his job because he spoke out against torture. I don't share all his perspectives - I like experimental literature which I suspect he detests and am probably to the left of him on economics. However, at its best (and his blog is frequently at its best) he manages to combine information on a range of subjects with anger and humour. (I recommend Craig Murray's book, Murder in Samarkand, as well.)

I'm also an avid reader of Mary Beard's blog for The Times. Mary Beard is a classics don at Cambridge who writes excellently and clearly on all sorts of subjects, but I'm happiest when she writes on Roman life and Latin literature. Sometimes she almost persuades me to prefer Romans to Greeks but she'll never quite manage it - I love the Greek language, especially the prose of Plato and the poetry of Sappho and Callimachus. I was forced to study Latin, though I grew to enjoy it at A-level, but the two 6th-form years in which I studied Greek - from scratch to A-level - were filled with intellectual excitement and I value the D I gained for Greek more than the A for Latin.

Sheenagh Pugh's blog, Good God! There's writing on both sides of that paper! is one that deserves to be better known. It takes in nmumerous areas, most of which I enjoy. Recently I've seen her pictures of the Shetlands (a recurring theme), read her thoughts on poetry in translation and discovered a Georges Brassens song I hadn't known before. Sheenagh Pugh is also a fine poet - and I recommend her novels too.

Another poet's blog is written by David Morley and hosted by Warwick University where he's Professor of Creative Writing. The blog includes lots of poetry, by David and others, and thoughts about poetry. I'd also like to mention his recent posts on the treatment of the Roma in Italy. If you visit his blog, please read these and consider signing the petition on the subject.

I also read Alan Baker's occasional blog, Litterbug, for its thoughts on poetry and literature. I wish I had time to follow up all the writers recommended there. It has particularly good comments.

The blog kllrichrd is also one with occasional posts. I first found it when there was a post about W.H. Auden, and realised that it was written from the perspective of someone who knew the Northern landscapes Auden loved. I particularly like the posts about gardening (which is a mystery to me), about working-class life and culture, about learning Chinese and world music. And there are also posts - sometimes with photos - about Northumberland. I hear Morpeth was badly flooded and the library seriously damaged. I can't fully express my concern for the people and their books.

Sometimes there are long gaps between posts on calm, almost too calm but the posts are always worth reading. The author had the terrifying experience of being arrested in the underground shortly after the Menenez shooting. He'd made the mistake of travelling equipped with a back-pack and mobile phone. Fortunately he lived to blog about it and to challenge the police's actions. His blog on civil liberties issues is well worth reading. The blog's marvellous title comes from the police notes on his behaviour on the day of his arrest.

Finally, I can't resist commending my brother's newish blog, Risky Thinking. It's related to his work on risk analysis and business continuity but don't let that put you off. It's clearly written and well thought through and makes me think about the ways in which I probably should organise my life better, particularly were I to set up in business on my own. I wish Mike would turn one or more of the scenarios into a thriller - he ought to be a writer - but I fear he hasn't the time, what with work and family. So I make do with his blog.

I would have liked to recommend Kate's Blog, but Kate has, sadly, stopped blogging. You can find occasional cached posts through google, but nowhere near enough. I regret Kate's departure from the blogosphere.

Friday, 5 September 2008

A communist barbeque

The first vote I cast was for a communist. It was in the Greater London Council elections of 1973.

Back in those days, I had great hopes of elections. I attended the public meetings - there were several and they were packed. I interrogated canvassers about their beliefs. I met the candidates as they campaigned in shopping centres and asked my questions. In that first election, I didn't make up my mind till just before polling day. I never agonised so much about a vote till 1997, when an encounter with Tony Blair finally persuaded me that I couldn't vote New Labour.

Back in 1973, there were four candidates. I can't remember who the Tory was. Records name a Mrs Williams. The Labour candidate was Marie Jenkins, wife of the MP standing in what was then a safe Labour seat. I didn't consider voting Liberal as I'd never met the candidate, Walter Hain. (Later I came to know, like and respect him and his wife, especially for their opposition to apartheid which cost them so much.) The communist candidate was called Dave Welsh.

I must have wanted to vote Labour because I sought out Marie Jenkins and asked her about her policies. Perhaps she thought I was younger than I was or perhaps I took her manner the wrong way. I can't remember what she said but I burned with shame at what I read as her condescension. In my memory, which may be false, she is wearing a fur coat - not necessarily real fur - and was visiting the council estate in a large car. I am certain she didn't take my earnestness seriously. I was eighteen and very intense. And I'd come across several people who assumed council tenants were stupid and criminal. I saw no reason to vote for someone who saw me, on the evidence of my address, as an inferior.

Dave Welsh was different from the other candidates. He lived in a council flat and, like my dad, worked for London Transport. When he spoke, he spoke with knowledge and experience about council housing and public transport. He also spoke approvingly of the Soviet Union, suggesting things were much better there. I wasn't convinced about Russia - films of tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968 suggested a grey oppression far from the optimism of the Communist Manifesto. But the Greater London Council wasn't concerned with foreign policy. I cared about council housing and public transport. I wanted a councillor who would speak with knowledge on behalf of other working people. I voted for Dave Welsh and, for a few hours, hoped that enough other people would vote as I did. He didn't win.

Communist councillors and councils are pretty rare in Britain. It's different in France. My friends in France have communist councillors and, when I last visited, I saw their announcements of a forthcoming communist barbeque in the public square.

As a non-tenant and non-voter, I was a little hesitant about turning up. I also realised that, in France, there wouldn't be anything for me to eat. But I could at least see what a communist barbeque looked like.

I arrived too early, just as they were setting up, but the communists didn't look intimidating. They were busy cooking sausages and dispensing cans of drink. I'd hoped there would be a sale of badges or stickers so that I could find a gift for my son but there was nothing like that. Instead there were leaflets advertising the latest communist initiatives: sales of fruit and vegetables at fair prices.

The French communist party has formed an alliance with some French farmers who, like British farmers, complain that they are forced to sell their produce at low prices so that it can be sold on at a high price in the shops. Communist leaflets suggest that, as a result, fruit and vegetables are becoming a luxury. The Communist response was simple and practical: they were transporting 60 tonnes of fruit and vegetables from the countryside and selling them at 100 stalls in the Paris area. The aim was fairer pay for the farmers and cheaper produce for hard-up Parisiens. Apparently they do this regularly.

I was impressed. My local councillors may hold surgeries, but they don't hold public barbecues in the High Road. Instead of helping small farmers make a living, they agree planning permission for yet another large supermarket and tell their angry electors that it's all for their good.

My French still isn't great but I managed a conversation with some of the communists. Mostly we compared rising prices in France and Britain. I remember that I characterised New Labour as "Les Pseudo-Travaillistes", speaking of the government's current fondness for big business. A communist ventured the opinion that Sarkozy and Thatcher were the same. I think I can detect differences but I saw his point. Anyway, my French wasn't up to a more detailed discussion.

I looked at the prices on the list of fruit and vegetables for sale. They were definitely cheaper than the supermarket. And they seemed to have a lot of nectarines. I'm allergic to nectarines. In any case, the sales were meant for the local people and I was getting ready to go home.