A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism
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The Fall, Cruiser’s Creek – fresh because it’s so yesterday.

I love this. The cinematography is so crude and amateurish, the behaviour in front of camera so unstudied that it reminds me of the early experiments in film with Dada Movement, or early silent movies. It is both guileless and wonderful. As if walking in front of a camera is enough in itself to be interesting. That’s anarchic, and really refreshing in an age of such self consciousness in front of the camera.

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Henry Vaughan’s “World of Light” and Conan Doyle’s Ghosts

9780957241381I was looking at some poetry a few days ago and I found this wonderful poem by Welsh 17th Century poet Henry Vaughan, about life after death.

I was struck by the phrase “the world of light” – which is how he describes the afterlife.

I found it an interesting coincidence that I had come up with the same phrase for my book, “Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light“.

 

 

THEY ARE ALL GONE INTO THE WORLD OF LIGHT
by Henry Vaughan

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.

Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!

He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.

And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.

If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.

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Power to Persuade: the techniques used by Paul McKenna for Brexit.

paul“Whoever is orchestrating the Leave campaign, I have to admit, they’re brilliant,” I said to a friend a few days before the referendum vote. “They understand exactly the rules of persuasion.”

On the side I favoured, the Remain camp was floundering in very much the way the same crew had floundered in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum before that final intervention – The Vow. They had fallen into the same mistakes: relying on warnings, and apparently plucking apocalyptic figures out of the air.

The Leave camp was also making unfounded promises, lying and misrepresenting the facts. But there was something qualitatively different between the two campaigns, and that was in the structure of the information they imparted.

“The Leave campaign,” I said to my friend, “is in a different league.”

Years before, I had studied persuasion while attending trainings with hypnotist Paul McKenna and his mentor, Dr Richard Bandler, in a widely misunderstood field called NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP is a fascinating subject. It studies the structures of human thinking, in order to guide the flow of behavioural responses. It does this through linguistic and non-linguistic communication which may be delivered at an unconscious or semi-conscious level. It therefore bypasses reason.

It has its critics, which divide roughly into two camps. There are those who say it is manipulative and unethical, and the others who say it doesn’t work and is snake oil. As Dr Bandler often points out in interview, both cannot be true. NLP is not unethical in itself, but like any tool, it can be used unethically.

Central to the training we received was the observation that decisions, thoughts and behaviour are dependent on emotional state. Hence, if you are angry with someone, it is very difficult to remember that you love them. If you are in love with someone, it is easier to forgive them; if you like someone, you are more likely to be relaxed with them and trust them, and so on. Reasoning is continually influenced by emotions; not to recognise that is to lay yourself open to all sorts of errors of judgement through other people’s influence.

Understanding how emotion works enables you to get different outcomes from your interactions. For example, after an argument, it is probably a mistake to immediately seek forgiveness. The rage is still too high in the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness. First you must change their state, or wait for their state to change. Then you can get a better result from your appeal.

Understanding the structure of emotions and how they are inter-related is central to one of the key uses of NLP: persuasion. That is why in the hands of a skilled practitioner, NLP is an extremely effective tool when it comes to sales.

This should not come as a surprise. Dr Richard Bandler, the inventor of the term NLP spent years studying and modelling the ways that persuasive salespeople operate. He didn’t invent good sales techniques – he codified them. Through his observations, he came to understand that a salesperson first of all builds a rapport with his audience so they in some way identify with the saleperson. This makes the customer less critical and more trusting of what the salesperson says.

That’s step 1: the gaining of trust through rapport.

Next comes the creation of a “propulsion system” – meaning a way to get someone to take an action, or to change their thinking.

In Richard’s terms, propulsion systems operate quite simply. Firstly you generate a picture or idea of the current situation that’s so awful the subject wants to move away from it. Having built up an emotion of revulsion or disgust, you then simply create its antithesis, a scenario or situation that the subject wants to move towards. Moving towards this happier scenario or idea relieves the revulsion previously built up. It therefore feels like it’s the answer to the problem presented.

This technique can be used for all sorts of things, not just sales. For example, Richard observed that those who kicked an addiction often reported that life had to get so bad for them that they were desperate to change. There it is again: moving away from – moving towards.

Recreating this pattern of thinking deliberately for his clients, Richard laid out the negatives of current behaviour and the extraordinary positives of a new behaviour. Crucially, this was not done as an intellectual exercise. It required the firing up of the emotions to make the change, because psychologists have long known that the will is the least effective part of the psyche to employ if you want to make a change.

In many cases, it works. Bandler found that addicts then committed themselves to new behaviours willingly and with their whole being, rather than making an intellectual decision which they easily broke when they were overwhelmed by an emotion.

Exactly this model was used by the Leave camp. First rapport building, then creating, or describing or presenting a bad situation that was apparently unsolvable was followed by what appeared to be the only solution that would alleviate the bad feeling: leaving the EU. It was, in NLP terms, technically brilliant.

I looked on, thinking that surely our side, the Remain side, must have their own advisers. Cameron, having been involved in political strategy for years, must also have someone who understood the structure of persuasion in the way the Leavers did.

Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.

The Remain camp appeared to have no concept of rapport building. They wheeled out economists and experts who essentially spoke down to the public, alienating those who were of a different class or background.

Then there was Eddie Izzard. If anyone could have been better chosen to alienate conservative-minded voters concerned at the way society had changed over the last few decades, a man in a dress with a pink beret could not have been better chosen. For Leave voters, he represented exactly the sort of moral decay that a friend’s Aunt Beryl summed up in her reasons for leaving: “I just want Britain to be like it was.”

The timbre of the Remain discussion was also very limited, and boiled down to basically half a persuasion strategy.

They repeatedly told people how bad things would be in the future outside of the EU – a good moving away from strategy. But they didn’t tie it together directly with a positive message. Like, for example, the fact that the economy was doing very well and we were about to overtake Germany and become the largest economy in the bloc in the next few years. Those different sides were mentioned, but were not tied together in a persuasive whole. The simple message of wanting to move away from one dark future towards another brighter one was not explicitly presented. Instead, only the down side was emphasised.

The problem with repeating the same strategy over and over again is that it begins to wear thin. Nor is it good enough to say, “to avoid that awful future, you must accept a continuation of this dull present.” It just doesn’t work that way, especially when the other side is offering jam tomorrow, if only you will be brave enough to make that change.

And there is the next part of the NLP persuasion strategy. Reframing objections. The Leavers cleverly reframed the notion of recklessness to bravery. Hence, Leavers weren’t foolhardy, they were intrepid. Once again, a negative was replaced with a positive. In contrast, Remainers were craven cowards afraid to “Take Back Control”. This slogan was thus attached to a positive self image, and became a simple way to encapsulate that feelgood factor in one simple slogan.

In NLP training, you are taught that the unconscious vibrates to such messages and feels better about itself again. This emotional orientation feeds on itself. Unconsciously, you have accepted that this course of action is right. It feels right, after all. Your unconscious can’t help itself. It wants to move towards a happier self image (at least in most cases) and a future associated with good feelings.

The power of the reframe was not understood by the Remain camp. The best David Cameron could do was to present his message in negative terms, saying, “I don’t believe we are quitters.” Really? Well, if you don’t believe that’s what we are, what do you think we actually are? People don’t like being called names. They like to have their egos massaged. Once again, only half the persuasion strategy was employed. No wonder the Leavers started to make real changes in people’s attitudes – not through reason, but through feeling.

Another strategy in persuasion techniques is that of inoculation. This is a technique which pre-empts objections to an argument, and seeks to neutralise it beforehand. This is exactly what happened whenever the Remain camp delivered their warnings for the future. For an NLP-savvy debater, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Tie a negative connotation to this warning behaviour and you invalidate it, especially if you have followers already keen to hear your argument, and already beginning to be sold on it.

Hence the repeated use of the terms “Project Fear” (borrowed from the Scottish referendum) and “scaremongering”. Soon, everything the Remainers said was scaremongering. The word was repeated by the Leavers over and over again, until it became anchored in the minds of its audience. It was brilliant. They played on emotions superbly. And even when they themselves stated stupid observations, like the one that said 80 million Turks would be able to move to the UK, the Leavers managed to drown out the counterargument from the Remainers that this too was scaremongering. They’d got there first with that one.

Much has been made of Michael Gove’s dismissive comment that we’ve all heard enough from experts. This, too, was brilliant inoculation and rapport building at the same time. It made Gove look as if he, too, were someone with no respect for education and was a common man. If you think about it, it is quite an extraordinary claim from a man who had been trying for years (by his own definition) to bring value back to education as Education Secretary. It was an extraordinarily dishonest line to take. Yet it worked. It spoke to the masses. “If he says we can ignore experts, well, we bloody well can!”

This is why this debate was so extraordinarily light on facts. The Leave campaign’s manifesto ran to a mere 1293 words, which is less than this article. Leave didn’t need facts. They needed anger and hope harnessed together to make the changes they needed.
So, it was brilliant NLP. I watched the campaign through the gaps in my fingers over my eyes. It was a slowmo car crash. I could see mistake on mistake being made by Remain, and no-one seemed to understand what was going wrong.

After the stomach churning result was delivered, it began to make sense. After the dust settled it became clear that at least one seriously heavy duty NLPer was on the Leave side. Paul McKenna, the Guardian reveals, is a friend of Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign. How far he was involved in the campaign is uncertain, though Paul will have at least cast his eye over the campaign material and advised on giving it tweaks.

Some people will complain that the Leave campaign was dishonest by doing this. There is no doubt at all that they were dishonest in many of their claims, but I suspect it wasn’t their specific claims where Paul’s real power came through.

What Leave wanted, and what they achieved, was an emotionally charged debate within which they could covertly make changes in attitudes in some of those who were undecided. As a supreme technician, this is Paul McKenna’s genius. He is just very, very good at what he does.

Whether it was ethical for the Leave camp to employ such tactics over a matter so vital to the future of the country, as opposed to selling someone a pair of shoes, is another matter. I know what I think about it, but this is not a discussion on that aspect of Paul’s brilliance.

The reality of the situation is, however, that the Remain side were out of date. They were using reason against emotion, the equivalent of using old field Howitzers against a side armed with cruise missiles.

And that is why we lost. We were outclassed at every move. Whoever made the decision not to take advice from people who understood the language and structure of persuasion was, in the end, the cause of our downfall.

I suspect that was Cameron, judging by his poor grasp of strategy.

A final thought: one of the major elements taught by Paul and by Richard in their NLP trainings is that such powerful techniques must be applied ethically. There is a practical reason for this advice. An ethical strategy prevents buyer’s remorse. A buyer who genuinely has their needs met doesn’t look up a few months later and think: hey, I was duped!

Whether this applies to this decision over the coming months, remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be much reinforcement of the message going on right now. That, too, is an NLP technique.

So what is the lesson? In the past, ancient kings consulted stargazers and mystics before battle and had spells cast for them. The modern politician must learn to do the same, otherwise he will enter the field at a massive disadvantage. Because people reason on the back of feelings, it’s vital to get their emotions right first, so they are receptive to your message. Once the mood is right, then it is also vital that you understand exactly how you are going to structure and deliver your message. It’s not just a question of getting up and treating it like an amateur schoolboy at an Eton debating society.

The Arcane Arts, then, are back in fashion.

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Has Boris and Cameron’s secret pact unravelled?

There is a narrative developing on the left that Boris Johnson never intended to take Britain out of Europe and is, right now, shitting his pants at the demons he has unleashed. Various stories tell it differently. Some suggest that he joined the Brexit campaign after previously being strongly pro-Europe to position himself with UKIP voters and other far right extremists.

On this take on history, Johnson expected not to win, but to steal the electoral base from far righters such as Farage, the BNP and other fascists, to lead the Tories under his leadership into a new term. The narrative goes, this explains why he looked so grim and ashen-faced on Friday morning and called for delay in invoking Article 50. It is true that he certainly didn’t look ecstatic, and has given a speech since the result telling Remainers that “we are part of Europe”.

It’s an interesting take, and one that could easily be true. Two arrogant Bullingdon boys allowing their sacred bonds formed at Uni and their arrogance at their perceived stupidity of the working classes to think they could pull a fast one over them. This all is possible.
However, the argument then goes on that neither Cameron nor Johnson will EVER invoke Article 50. This is dangerous politics. Whatever the machinations and hidden motives behind the result, WE CANNOT AFFORD TO THINK THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN.
Push, now. Push for a second referendum. We have a short window in which Boris and Cameron are paralysed in the headlights of history. We must ensure we get a second referendum. The lies of the Leavers have been exposed. Many voters didn’t vote, many are shocked at the lies unravelling so quickly. The nation is in flux and we have not yet embarked on a course that would see us sailing away from Europe forever. WE MUST ACT NOW.

Some of you may be thinking “oh well, the referendum – it is all decided” and give up. No. Countries across Europe have a history of re-running referenda until the desired answer is given. Farage would certainly not have let this go. Remember, a referendum is advisory data for Parliament to consider. They are not legally bound to act on it. We have a short window to make ourselves heard.

Already there is a second narrative being driven by the media. It talks about “regrexit” – those people who just voted to stick one to the Establishment without thinking their vote counted. It may be true, it may be spin by a shocked, liberal-minded media. But it is a lifeline. We should grasp it.

I urge you, now – sign the petition on the UK government site. Act now. There is still a chance that we can save this country from the abyss. Do not give up the fight. And do not fall into cynicism. If you care about this country and your lives, push for a clear result. Remember, the Farage would certainly be doing so, in this position. We are in extra time. We have all to play for.

Now, mobilise.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/131215

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Does Disney’s new Jungle Book do Pompey’s Rudyard Kipling justice?

Disney’s 1960s adaptation of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book is a classic of silliness with great tunes. It also has, apart from the title and the names of the characters, nothing to do with the pair of children’s books written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. The books are far darker, deeper, truer and better in every way. So, what of the new 2016 version?

I admit I was late to Kipling. I only read The Jungle Books as an adult, having been steered away from them by the light and frothy cartoon. But, one day, having read that they were true classics, and considering Kipling’s Portsmouth pedigree, I thought I would check out the work of this locally grown boy.

Kipling’s life in Portsmouth was tough. Left in the town by his parents, who returned to India where they worked as civil servants, he found himself in the clutches of a psychotic nanny, Mrs Holloway, to whom he later referred in his autobiography Something of Myself as “The Woman”. Six years of hell ensued, as she terrorised him, punishing him for the tiniest, ordinary things kids do – even punishing him for “showing off” when it was discovered he needed to wear glasses. Justice for such transgressions took the form of beatings, and of being locked in the house alone while the household went on holidays, or prevented from reading, which he averred, made him seek to read all the more earnestly. It was bad. In fact, his life in Southsea led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 11.

Little wonder that many of the short stories in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book tell the tale of a child, Mowgli, abandoned in a hostile jungle where he must learn The Law to survive. This is a direct reflection of his own experiences. No surprise, either, that Mowgli grows up determined to kill his tormentor, in this case, the lame tiger Shere Khan. In another story written after The Jungle Books, Kipling produced a fictionalised account of life in Southsea, Baa Baa Black Sheep. In this, the boy threatens to burn down the house of Aunt Rosa (this story’s verson of The Woman), to kill her and her son and wreak awful revenge on the boys who bully him at school at Rosa’s instigation.

Despite all this darkness in Kipling’s childhood and in the childhood of Mowgli, The Jungle Books are filled with wonders. The behaviour of the animals to each other and to Mowgli, of the man-cub’s learning to become socialised into the group and the adventures he has along the way are rich in poetic truths. From the specifics of an imagined boy’s life, one learns the way real human society works and how a child must learn to fit into his environment and still be himself. Thus, the learning of secret words which will make the animals help him (interestingly, Kipling also wrote about Freemasonry – another society using secret codes, in The Man Who Would Be King; the motif of secret communication returned again in Kim); or his kidnap by the Bandar Log monkey tribe, during which he discovers their utter fecklessness; or the wise guiding paw of the old bear, Baloo.

Striking is the choice of antiquated modes of speaking, which emphasise the formal and informal. Throughout the book, the animals refer to each other as “thou”. This convention, and the semi-mythical register they speak in makes the stories read almost like religious texts at times. They feel powerful in a way that most children’s books don’t – and truer because of it.

Of the final vengeance Mowgli wreaks on Shere Khan, the tiger’s brutal death and how Mowgli skins the body and brings the hide to The Council Rock where the wolves meet to discuss The Law of the Jungle, that section is truly horrific.

So, how does the new Disney live action / CGI movie fare?

Neel Sethi in Disney's The Jungle Book

The movie is, actually, pretty good. It is in many ways truer to the spirit of the books than the 1960s aberration that does so little to recognise Kipling’s genius. Bagheera, the black panther, is sleek, noble and powerful. Baloo, annoyingly, is a charming buffoon – a hangover, I suspect, from the cartoon. Kaa, the giant snake is, inaccurately, interested only in eating Mowgli, whereas in the original stories their relationship is far more subtle – and indeed in the books it is Kaa who saves Mowgli from the Bandar Log when he arrives at the last minute after Baloo and Bagheera are overrun. Kaa’s hypnotic fascination of the monkeys is spine-chilling in the book.

In the movie, the collection of stories is streamlined. So, it is now Bagheera who finds Mowgli, whereas it is the boy himself who walks to Raksha, the she-wolf, in her cave, and is adopted by her. It is she who faces down Shere Khan who tracks him there. All this is removed from the story, understandably so, because the relationships would become too tangled.

What suffers because of this is the subtlety and nuance of the many-faceted stories and their meanings as they are pulled together into a single narrative, and, unfortunately the film takes on a far too familiar shape. Mowgli has an arch enemy, Shere Khan, and must acquire the skills to overcome him by finding his true self. It is the old story of the Hero’s Journey – pretty much the secret origin story of every single superhero movie that has been made in the last 20 years. It feels as if Hollywood has forgotten that there are other stories than those told by the DC and Marvel franchises.

There is one outstanding positive about this movie, however. Neel Sethi is the only real person we see in it, and he is utterly convincing. How he acted against green screens opposite non-existent co-actors is difficult to imagine. Sure, there would have been stand-ins for him to play against in the scenes, but the act of sustained imagination required of acting in such an environment is impressive. One moment sums it up for me. Mowgli is sitting on Baloo’s stomach floating down the river, when the bear unexpectedly splashes him. The look on Sethi’s face is one of genuine surprise. It feels utterly real – and this with a character made of digitalised pixels.

In other ways, the choice of Sethi as Mowgli is perplexing. He has long gangling legs in the film, and seems often to shuffle around, as if he is picking his way along a stony beach, barefoot – surely not the way a child born to jungle life would move. This, again, is perhaps a call back to the perennially annoying Disney cartoon in which Mowgli is comically gawky.

Towards its end, the movie descends into the Bond-villain-meets-his-doom denouement that this type of production can’t avoid.

So, what happens to Shere Khan being trampled to death and skinned in an act of concerted pack revenge?

All this is gone. Instead, Mowgli faces the tiger alone, and consigns him to the flames in a grandiose fall into a jungle fire. It is a very different feeling from the books, which emphasise co-operation. This is the story of a hero acting alone.

Nevertheless, this is a good effort. Unlike the 1960s cartoon, it does have something to do with the books it is named after. Not as much as I would like, but at least a little bit.

Perhaps it is a good thing that these films are so different from the books. After all, the books continue to stand in their own right as a separate – and far superior – entity to the Disney versions.

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Punch and Judy at the Covent Garden May Fayre, 2016

On Sunday 8th May Jackie and I went to the May Fayre at St Paul’s Churchyard, Convent Garden. It’s extraordinary for one thing in particular – it’s the place for Punch and Judy.

The view of St Paul's Churchyard from the church steps.

The view of St Paul’s Churchyard from the church steps.

Every year at the May Fayre, Mr Punch and his fellow puppets descend on “The Actor’s Church” in Covent Garden to celebrate this very strange, violent and utterly joyous artform. Why? Because it was here in 1662 at the May Fayre that diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of seeing the “little play” of Punch and Judy performed – the first time it is mentioned in English writing.

It’s a venerable tradition, and myths have grown up around it. One Punch and Judy man told me that Charles II was so struck by the skill of the puppeteers that he announced that all Punch and Judy men (and, more recently, women) should be known as “Professors”, a sobriquet that has continued to the present day. Whether it’s actually true is a matter of debate, but plenty of Professors will tell you it is.

St Paul’s Churchyard is a lovely place. When you step away from the big open space of Covent Garden, where performers play to tourists using the rear wall of the church as their backdrop (watched from the balcony of the Punch and Judy public house), you find that the churchyard itself is by contrast an intimate space – a grassed and tree-grown courtyard which stretches out from the church entrance.

Jackie and I arrived early, and the striped booths shone bright in the gorgeous sunshine. The place felt like a little village fete, and it was difficult to believe we were in the heart of London.

Punches in the Church

Punches in the Church

At 12 noon there was a church service of an eccentric nature. People poured into St Paul’s, many with puppets on their arms – one child wearing a Harry Potter cape carried a Punch on his hand among all the others; brightly coloured clothes abounded. We had stepped into the land of magic and strangeness. A marching jazz band burst in at the head of a procession, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” brashly down the aisle, and a giant, stilted beefeater with a crow on his shoulder and painted clown face danced next to the pulpit with violent movements. And so the service began.

There was a children’s choir, and the vicar of Millwall Football Club gave a talk and got his choir to sing: the kids a little sheepish, singing slightly shyly. Was this London, really? This could have been any village church in the country on a Fete day. It was lovely.

Then, Mr Punch appeared in the pulpit, being asked questions by the vicar. It was a joyous moment and the audience laughed along. And afterwards, the Punch and Judy shows began.

Quite how the Church squares the murderous psychopath that is Mr Punch with a message of good will to all the people of the world is a strange question. Mr Punch is one of the most subversive, sinister and truly funny characters to ever come out of the theatrical tradition in England.

The perennial pulling power of Punch

The perennial pulling power of Punch

For that strange, heady mixture, I love him. The afternoon saw about 30 booths come alive with Mr Punch and friends, with numerous variations on the play. The first performance I watched was by respected puppeteer Geoff Felix, whose opening scene, featuring a pair of brutally violent and inept boxers was followed by an enigmatic staring puppet whose neck stretched out to phallic and hilarious proportions. Then on to the main act, and out came Mr Punch and his long-suffering wife Judy. Geoff Felix’s act was particularly rough and tumble, with Mr Punch bashing his victims’ heads in with great gusto, to the raucous laughter of the children.

It was the start of a series of shows that stretched on for the afternoon, with each Professor bringing his own take on the story. At times Punch was behind bars, at others he was about to be executed. Sometimes he rode a horse and at others he banged his head with hilarious effect, while his baby disappeared around the booth on the most unpredictable wanderings. Even Darth Vader made an appearance in one booth, while a French puppeteer clearly in love with the British Punch and Judy tradition had the British couple introduce the French Guignol and the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

But for all of these variants, the story I love best is the old one: the crazy, anarchic tale of the psychopath, Mr Punch, and his shrew of a wife who live in deeply comic passion together before coming to blows over their baby.

Punch kills. There’s no getting round it. He murders. It’s a transgression that is dealt with by different puppeteers with varying effect. Sometimes deeply sinister, sometimes careless, sometimes calculated, sometimes desperate, always funny – the first murder takes place. Then, one by one, with mounting ludicrousness, Punch kills every authority figure who comes to punish him, until finally he kills the devil himself.

At the end, Mr Punch is triumphant, announcing each time he kills a victim – that’s the way to do it! – Sometimes, he loudly counts the bodies he has piled up, like a macabre version of Sesame Street, while Joey the Clown moves the bodies around so that he can’t keep track of whom he’s killed. Sometimes, too, he is haunted by those he has murdered – but when he gets the measure of the ghost who comes to torment him, he even kills the ghost.

It is anarchy at work, and it upsets the moral order with a deeply subversive message. Though there are all those in power above him, Punch reigns supreme, the mischievous, murderous imp whom – bizarrely – children love.

And the fact is, the kids really do love him. Watching the seated children whom you might think would be a little too sophisticated for glove puppets, they were utterly transfixed. They got the humour, straight away, penetrating to the crazy core of the story, while, occasionally shocked parents looked on with apprehension at the scene.

David Wilde - Professor Extraordinaire

The amoral anti-hero at the heart of Punch and Judy makes it a unique experience, and deeply addictive. It is pure, unadulterated anarchy.

Perfect.

Punch is my hero!

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Real Writer’s Block – What it is, and what it is not.

DespairAdele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.

With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.

Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.

She started off this section by make a provocative point:

“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.

Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.

So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.

During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.

Everyone has a blindspot for something.

Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.

Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.

After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.

There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.

That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.

And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.

I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.

Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.

I considered suicide.

In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.

I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.

The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.

Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.

If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.

Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.

If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.

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A Long Journey Left – an experiment in political awakening

(Below is the first time I have ever written autobiographically about the political beliefs instilled in me from early on. Not deliberately instilled, just taken for granted that they were right. It is part of a larger programme. But that whole story is a long way off.)

nelson_full_size

Picture the scene. A young boy of perhaps four years old standing in a grand old house in the Hampshire Downs, an elegant double staircase shining in the sunlight. Something is going on outside to do with sailors, the milling of people and the buzz of excitement. The day is magnificent.

Near the base of the stairs on the wall is a portrait that has drawn the young boy’s fascination. A man with white curly hair, pale, unsmiling and with pale blue eyes. The boy has an impression of golds and red and a dark background.

A man comes up behind the boy and puts his hand on his shoulder.

“Daddy, who is this?”

“That’s Nelson,” he says.

The boy is confused. Using one word for a name like that means you know him. But the boy doesn’t know him.

“Who is Nelson?”

“He was a great man,” says the man. “A sailor. A very great man.”

The boy considers for a moment. “He looks very small,” he says, unable to work out the scale of the portrait, which is not quite life size. He looks at it for a while longer then turns away.

Later, he sees his father shouting orders to a company of sailors marching up and down a parade ground, and there is a man with a lot of gold on his sleeves that his brother takes a photograph of with his new Polaroid camera. People speak about this man with his gold sleeves with reverence, and the boy hears with mild interest that this is the uncle to the Queen. The adults approve of this. All is right with the world. Far, far right.

Thus I was born into the fagbutt of empire. When I was a boy, I used to marvel at how many countries at the Olympic games would parade around the stadium with a Union Flag (dad was always clear about this, “it is only a Union Jack when flown from the Jack staff of a ship,” and I still can’t shake off the usage despite that not being the case), and swell with pride. Some time in our past, we had “won the war” (my schoolfriends would chant this sentiment inaccurately, controlled by the rhyme scheme: we won the war, in nineteen forty-four). We had also won the world. Great Britain did indeed live up to the adjective. Foreign countries and their people were owned by us.

Later in life, one of the habits I had to get out of was asking people with a brown skin where they were from. My dad and his generation did it all the time, and it wasn’t meant to be offensive. It was genuinely, I guess (what with him having stayed at various old colonial bases around the world), a question of “Oh, I might know your country”. It was friendly.

I kept up with the whole “where are you from” thing until the 1990s when I was in my 20s, when I began to notice how often people shrugged almost with desparation and said: “London,” curtly. This, in my enthusiasm, was not enough. “Oh, where are you parents from?” – this question followed on from my parents’ example. This follow-up question would get a more curt response. It was only after some reflection that I began to see that this was not necessarily friendly, in the way I intended, but equally could be deemed as: “You are not British. What are you really?”

After a while, I stopped asking that question. But it took some time. And that, I suppose is true of many another ingrained response from a period that is now history, and yet which still manages to make itself felt with its dead hand on the present by the many people who lived through it and didn’t question what it meant.

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Is the America’s Cup the new Pope’s Toilet?

In the little-known Uruguayan movie The Pope’s Toilet, a promised visit by the Pope drives the populace of Melo, a deprived and rundown town into a frenzy at the promised bonanza coming to their doors.

Hyped by a near-hysterical Press and lackey local politicians to believe that ever-increasing numbers of wealthy Brazilians will descend on this massive event, one impoverished citizen, Beto, conceives a unique means of serving the promised 200,000 visitors. Beto makes a living smuggling lower-tax goods across the border from Brazil, and he puts his life savings and daughter’s education fund into buying and building a paid-for public convenience in his back garden.

The pressure on his family who are living hand-to-mouth and the near-mania the town’s inhabitants achieve as the day draws near tests relationships and pushes Beto to the edge under the mounting expectation that a gold rush is upon him.

In the end, a corporate Pope turns up with his retinue of coaches stuffed with cardinals and elite hangers-on out for a day’s jolly. These VIPs all have their food and drink – and more importantly for Beto – their toilets, provided on board their coaches, conveniently keeping them as far away from the poor as possible.

Meanwhile, the 400 people who turn up to attend the Pope’s mass are served by 387 trinket stalls. The blessing is given in a matter of an hour or so and then the event is over. No one is any richer, but everyone is a little wiser.

Looking at the VIP grandstand on the seafront today, in the place which is psychologically associated in the people of Portsmouth’s minds with free entertainment and with freedom to relax in a city that has the densest population of any city in Northern Europe, I thought on this film and was struck by the way large corporations, be they religious or commercial, arrange matters for their own convenience at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. Looking at the sparse attendance on the first two days and the grumblings on social media, I am wondering as Saturday morning dawns if The America’s Cup will indeed become the new Pope’s Toilet.

I hope not. Sincerely, I want Portsmouth to be a place where people have a great time. But I also want the businesses who have descended on our town to show a bit of understanding of who we are. Because if they’d done that, there might not be the grumbling and muttering that has sullied what should be a fabulous event.

The pre-poured beers standing at £5 a pint in the Waterfront Arena are perhaps emblematic of the show thus far. Whilst it is true that locals of Portsmouth were offered free tickets to attend the four-day event, that generosity was attenuated by the sheer expense of having a day out there.

To gain admission to the Waterfront Arena, you must surrender your own food and drinks. Social media includes accounts of parents with 2-year-olds being refused admission with their baby food. It includes coeliacs turned away with their own food even though they simply couldn’t eat the food being served inside the Arena. All this in a place which is psychologically to many Pompeyites THE ONLY picnic area in the city, where many a barbie has burned a hole in the grass and many a cheap-bought sausage undergone cremation before finding a final resting place in a bin.

So, what do you get if you decide to play along and enter the Arena?

The original reason that Southsea Common was saved from developers was that it provided clear lines of sight and constituted a killing zone to deter attacking French troops intent on burning the dockyard. That’s why it was kept clear for hundreds of years while the town jammed up to its edges.

The atmosphere inside the Arena on the first two days was dull (and to be fair, what else could it be in Friday’s deluge?) and appeared primarily designed for stalls to make a killing from the attendees. Most food was pitched at £6 or above – which for a take-away of not particularly generous proportions made primarily of, for example, egg noodles, stings the wallet. There are some stands that give the Arena a local presence. Strong Island are there, as are Pie and Vinyl – both hip organisations with cool appeal, somewhat incongruously sitting in a field containing a large corporate stand with a BMW on it.

There is also a large stage with big screens. There appears to be no obvious programme for the events on the stage in the day, but the sailing can also be watched on the screens. Thankfully so, since the only people with a really excellent view of the sailing in the water are the corporate VIPs who have taken up squatting rights in the city’s free entertainment arena at the bandstand.

The plight of the traders on the seafront near the Hovertravel terminal speaks plenty about the way big business thinks about – or doesn’t think about – ordinary people trying to make a living. The 4-metre-tall fencing that has sprung up along the seafront has blocked off local shops from being able to sell to the public tantalisingly close on the other side of that wall. Local businesses who have provided services for years, if not decades on that spot deserve a share in the high times if they come. They are, after all, the ones who kept the seafront alive long before a Louis Vuitton PR manager, a BMW sales executive or a BAR Landrover events promoter ever heard of Southsea.

For me – and this is a personal opinion – the real problem with this event in a city like Portsmouth is that it is exclusive. People need tickets or they are excluded. People need money or they are excluded. People need to be in the arena or they are excluded. People need to understand about boats, about BAR Landrover and about sailing… or they are excluded. And of course, you need tens of millions of pounds to part-own one of those strange boats that don’t even seem to touch the water. There hasn’t been enough reaching out, enough education, enough explaining to the ordinary people why this distant event should be significant to them.

All this is in distinct contract with the spectacularly successful Trafalgar 200 event in 2005. Generally a masterpiece of event management, the whole marvellous, crazy event saw hundreds of thousands flock down to the open seafront and enjoy the day out. Almost everyone benefited. Local businesses and other street traders alike had a massive market to sell to, prices were kept sensible by genuine competition – people didn’t feel trapped into spending more than they normally would on food – and there was plenty of money to go round among the traders, be they local or otherwise.

The current sponsors have taken this model and inverted it by pushing people off the Common and seafront west of the Castle unless they have tickets.

That’s a foolish thing to do – especially when another, sensibly-priced event is due to give a top-notch show in just a few brief weeks. And when, actually, the America’s Cup may be a big deal for a small yachting elite and their wealthy sponsors, but is not a big deal for a working class town struggling with illiteracy, poverty and the day-to-day grind of life. Those people need a break, not to be sold at.

I so hope that there is a good crowd today and that the weekend goes well. I do believe that the America’s Cup will be good in the long run for Portsmouth. For that reason, I hope there is a good vibe in the town, and excitement at the races. But I also hope that next year the promoters do things differently and don’t just parachute in their VIPS and take over the seafront and Common for 4 days whilst the locals feel they’re being sold overpriced concert tickets and beer.

In many ways the Common is a near-sacred place to the people of Pompey. That means you have to get it right or you will feel their wrath. Exactly that happened in 1874 during the Battle of Southsea, in which thousands descended on the Common to prevent an attempt by a precursor of today’s fence-obsessed Corporations to enclose a tiny part of it. Back then, the Riot Act was read, and in four days of continual fighting, the people burned down the fences. It set a folk memory in Pompey people’s minds that actually, the Common is ours.

You mess with that belief at your peril, you people in your VIP stands. Please remember that.

Now here’s to future success for the city and for BAR Landrover. But in partnership with all of us, please, not at our expense.

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