Race – this stupid, outdated idea needs to be retired

Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

I guess I’m lucky.

I grew up in a household which didn’t put race on the agenda in the way I’ve now realised many others did when I was growing up in the 70s.

Yes, my dad repeated “jokes” he’d learned as a wartime kid, and, yes, I repeated others that bobbed my way like crap down the cultural sewer pipe, little stinking pellets of unthinking stupidity and careless cruelty.

I hang my head and see it now as the squawking of a parrot mimicking sounds from its environment. We were deeply ignorant and didn’t have the knowledge, perspective or conceptual tools to look deeper into what those supposed jokes said about English culture’s view of non-white people. My youth was stupid, un-self-aware, but not deliberately cruel.

There was plenty of encouragement to get nasty. The obnoxious stereotypes of On The Buses, even the clumsy comedy of Love Thy Neighbour which portrayed a racist white neighbour living next to an intelligent, kind black couple, casual jokes in the playground and simplistic mud hut representations of other cultures and all the other indications that Britain had not learned to deal with race issues was part of my childhood’s psychic background. I took race for granted, I suppose.

Growing up on a housing estate in Hampshire in the 70s, I rarely saw black people. Dad had been a naval officer and in a naive way asked anyone of colour where they were from. I thought this was normal, and continued doing so into the 1990s, until I at last thought about the implication that it was telling them that this was not their home. I cringe at the thought of it.

And yet, on another level, we had a girl at school, Yolande, with dark skin and beautiful long, straight black hair. I really liked her because she was basically a nice person – kind, calm, friendly, considerate. Her parents were from somewhere foreign – somewhere exotic – but I never asked her where she was from, because her house backed on to the school playground. So that’s where she was from. She was just another friend at school and I didn’t really think of her as different, or one of the black people that the jokes were told about.

I first encountered active, aggressive racism when I heard another girl schoolfriend shout Sambo at her. I was about 8 years old and I found the incident baffling. We had a book called Sambo at school, but it was about this smart African kid who outmanoeuvred a tiger by turning it into butter. It was a fantasy with a positive hero, and it just didn’t map onto the real world, or on to Yolande. None of it made any sense to me, yet my friend was angry and shouted that word and many others at her, telling her to go back home. Which was odd, because she was in her back garden at the time.

I was disturbed by this first real encounter with actual race hatred. I’m sure I had absorbed racist views from society, in the same way I did sexist ones, but I didn’t know yet that I was a naïve racist who just went along with many of the norms in the culture at the time.

I had no idea what the cultural attitudes I grew up with meant to others because I only thought about myself and my attitudes. Thinking about the lived experience of the people around me who were different from me came much later. It started with the study of English Literature, where I learned to think through other people’s experiences, and that learning is still going on now as I cringe at some of the things I’ve said in the past, usually not maliciously or deliberately, but out of yet more white, male ignorance.

Every day as I grow older, race seems to come up as a discussion point, and I admit that same sense of bafflement I had as a child continues. Because the more I think about the word race, the more I realise I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean.

Just recently I received another perspective on this word race from an unexpected source.

I have been been reading The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russell Wallace as part of research I’ve been doing.

Wallace was the man who came up with the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin. Wallace even minted the phrase survival of the fittest. He was an extraordinary man, spending 8 years in what is now called Indonesia, living on numerous islands among the natives, collecting tens of thousands of specimens for the Royal Society, making observations of the natives while he shot, captured, catalogued skinned and pinned birds, butterflies, weevils, animals – basically anything non-human that lived.

His interest lay in the diversity of species across Indonesia. His theory was that the animal productions of the massive 1700-island archipelago were divided into two distinct and separate groups depending on which of two continental plates the islands were found on. Hence, in the eastern side of the archipelago tree-climbing kangaroos and birds of paradise related to Australian species are found. In the west, we see tigers and babirusa pigs related to species from the Indian subcontinent.

Sometimes the islands might be 15 miles apart, yet their evolutionary spheres are completely separate.

The creatures he wrote about have adapted to their surroundings and specialised into particular species. They thus have particular qualities. The tree kangaroo in New Guinea climbs trees to escape predators, and has adapted to do so more recently, which is why they aren’t very good at it. A species of oriole bird on The Moluccas mimics the colouring of the honeysucker bird, since the latter has strong claws and beak to deter predators, or an insect may look exactly like a leaf to camouflage itself.

And so Wallace categorises each animal, looking at its strengths and weaknesses, seeking to discover why they have evolved to a particular form. Sometimes he refers to the family of parrots as the “parrot tribe”, an odd use of the word which hints at the process of division and categorisation going on in Wallace’s mind in other areas, too.

Toward the end of the book, things take a new turn.

Just as has already done with the birds, insects and animals, he now starts to classify the races of people living in Indonesia and their (what he considers to be) inherent qualities. As he does so, the colonial European attitude is laid bare.

I should be clear. Wallace is not an out-and-out racist or unquestioning imperialist. His book is fascinating in part because he uses his studies of the nature of beetles or the modifications of butterflies and the treatment of the native tribes to reflect on the way society does or doesn’t work, advocating for regulation of the free market – at times even taking a near-socialist stance.

At other times he speaks of the Dutch imperial system in glowing terms as a kind of benign paternalistic institution good for all members of society, in contrast to the British free market philosophy which he argues inevitably leads to lower wages and poverty. It is a very particular view that misses the exploitation and brutality in the Dutch system. He seems to mistake native resignation to oppression for satisfaction.

Wallace talks about savages and primitive societies all the way through his book. Just as he does with the other animal productions of the archipelago, he discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different natives. The highest form are the Malays, he contends, while the lowest form are the Papuan savages.

One line in the book, viewed in the light of what happened in Europe with Hitler’s equally unscientific racial theories made my blood run cold:

We most of us believe that we, the higher races have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring nearer.

Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago, Vol II, 1869

Here, Russell Wallace kicks over his scientific background and falls straight back into superstition. Variation thus far has only been presented as an adaptation to environment. Now, however, there is a goal, an endpoint toward which evolution is aimed. This implies intention and direction, which is very different from the unconscious mechanisms of adaptation he has been writing about before.

Suddenly, we are no longer looking at people as well or ill-adapted to their environments. He has added metaphysics to the discussion.

Thus, the Malay people have a superior moral sense, which Wallace argues is part of their race. Evolution then, is not only a physical adaptation to the environment. The same process of evolution leads to moral improvement, and the state of a nation’s morals is another indication of the stage of evolution of the race formed from it.

Wallace elucidates further: some of the groups of savages he has encountered are immoral and lazy as a racial trait, while another race of savage is energetic, and though ill-disciplined shows great promise in having a moral sense.

This racial theory of morality has deep problems. Not least the lack of any scientific evidence for it.

His idea of a racial teleology is an adaptation of an old idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets have promised us perfection. In the bible, we are offered a New Jerusalem, a perfected world and society in which, in Christian terms, the virtuous dead are resurrected and literally build a perfected heaven on Earth once those who don’t fit in are removed from that perfect society.

Here that same old idea surfaces, now recouched by Wallace in terms of human evolution – an evolution that includes morality.

How can that be? In reality, moral traits that in one situation are considered anti-social or dangerous are in other situations exactly what society demands.

Recently a man was attending a conference in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, when he realised that a terrorist in a suicide vest was killing people outside. Seeking a weapon, he snatched the horn of a narwhal from the wall and tackled the killer.

The man, Steven Gallant, said he simply acted on impulse without thinking. He was proclaimed a hero. His story, however, is more complex than that. Gallant was on day release to attend a prisoner rehabilitation course. He had been imprisoned for his part in the premeditated murder of a violent offender who had himself been acquitted of the attempted murder of a prostitute. The man that Gallant helped beat to death had been so severely mutilated that the ambulance crew were unable to find his mouth.

Where is this evolutionary morality Wallace claims exists? The very same traits of willingness to use sudden extreme violence without considering the consequences were present in both cases. One is interpreted as immoral, the other as moral. In fact, in the former case Gallant might argue that he was acting under moral compunction to set right the scales of justice. In the latter, he acted on impulse. His own view of matters might well be the reverse of how others judge it.

If one wants an example that answers European stereotypes of the savage rather than with the higher race Russell Wallace suggests is a European trait, we need to look a little closer to home than the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace goes on to elucidate his view, and we realise that he believes the perfectly moral citizen will be in accord with a perfectly moral society:

What is this ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain, that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,—a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization, to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.

It is both absurd and simultaneously seductive to a European. In Wallace’s view, evolution will take us to societal perfection, and Europeans are nearer to it than savages. Europeans have a heightened moral sense, they are superior, better, higher – while the rest of humanity is either being driven by evolution to become like Europeans, or is savage.

We have in Russell Wallace an early view that, taken on one interpretation, could lead to a theory of eugenics and fascism, and on another to an idealised Utopian socialist state. Both require a single standard which everyone must meet – not necessarily so with socialism, but that is how it has been interpreted by the great monocultures of the 20th Century that called themselves socialist or communist.

And then, just when we think he is irredeemable for his strange blindness to the failings of the higher race of Europeans that at the time were oppressing huge tracts of the globe, the paragraph below follows on from that above:

Now it is very remarkable, that among people in a very low stage of civilization, we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour’s right, which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.

Is it it possible that once more we are seeing what appears to be an adapted religious idea shaping Russell Wallace’s world view? The description of an idealised humanity in its most atavistic form has an echo in Christianity after all. If primitive humanity has an innate goodness about it, then it is similar to the innocence Adam had before The Fall.

If this is colouring his thinking, it is yet more illogic and superstition. It is romanticising noble savages as much as his racial theories malign them.

Well, you may ask, what has all this to do with race?

The point is a simple one, in the end. The imprecision of thinking, and the use of taxonomic analogies from the study of nature was overlaid by men like Russell Wallace onto a consideration of the different cultural, intellectual, psychological, moral and biological variations to be found in humans and used to hierachise those variations in terms that were hugely tainted by prejudices and a sense of superiority. The term race itself, then, is tainted by ideas of racism from its earliest uses. Race is a term when it is applied to humans that very roughly equates to species, or sub-species – and from very early on it has been a way for Europeans to distinguish themselves as somehow superior. All of this is inherent to the Russell Wallace’s use of the word. And Alfred Russell Wallace was by no means a far right bigot when compared to other Victorian gentlemen.

The word race, springs from a muddled set of European values designed to evaluate, belittle and censure those who are not like us. This process of judgement is absolutely central to the term, and I don’t know how you can talk about race without those unconscious judgments being present.

That, I believe, is why we need a new word when we talk about the biological diversity that is humanity. The word we use now is crass, outdated, and just not up to the job.

Parasite: Is It Any Good? – Review – Some Spoilers

Parasite, the Academy Award Winning movie has been a game-changer in Hollywood, which sees tinseltown’s establishment placing foreign language films on the same equal footing with English language works. To say this is a revolution in the way the city of dreams sees its place in an expanded and globalised world is a truism. But is the movie any good?

The answer has to be, of course, yes. But it is also not a flawless masterpiece and it certainly won’t appeal to all tastes. To my eyes, the opening hour of the film is slow as it sets up the set of relationships between the wealthy members of the Park family, and the carpet-bagging wannabe Kim family who at first just want enough money to eat and pay for their mobile phones, but by half way through have grand dreams of owning the luxurious modernist pad their hoodwinked employees inhabit.

The Kim Family in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite.
From left, Choi Woo Shik, Song Kang Ho, Chang Hyae Jin and Park So Dam.

The film is billed as a black comedy thriller, and that in itself has a few problems. Black comedy, in my experience, often means comedy where there aren’t very many laughs, but more a twist of schadenfreude. And this movie stays true to that maxim. The travails and hopes of the Kim family in trying to climb the social ladder are neither particularly thrilling nor are they particular funny. One sees them do what they do, and there are occasional moments at which one thinks – well, that was clever of them, or that was mean of them – but judging by the silence of the cinema I sat in, not many others found much humour during the film’s rather long, slow first hour. There were, however, quite a lot of phone screens lighting up as people checked the time.

The second act of the movie becomes suddenly a lot crueller and more interesting, with a dark secret uncovered, and yes, it has some unpleasant humour in it and some genuine tension and violent comedy-ish moments. But what happened here for me was the unpleasantness each character shows to the others began to disengage me from them. I felt no emotional investment in anything going on.

It is quite possible this is deliberate. There is a discussion in the movie which talks about how wealthy people are made likeable by money. So, of course we aren’t going to like the poor characters. But this seems a rather trite and literalist take on the script’s meaning, which is a comment on the deep inequalities in society, and how people live in their own tiny worlds unaware of those around them, selfish and self-centred.

And that message, really, is the problem for me with this movie. Everyone is selfish. There’s no one to like.

By the time the ending comes with one of the characters deliberately incarcerating themselves and trying desperately to communicate with the outside world in the most preposterous of ways, when they could at any moment just walk out from their prison, I had lost faith in the movie’s vision and message. The director, having set up a strongly realist scenario, had decided to jump paradigms into symbolism. At no way, on a realist reading, does the ending work. It is psychologically untrue, and actually rather insulting to the audience, after they have invested this time in the film to receive such a poor pay-off.

For me, on that level, the film is interesting but unsatisfying. It gives some deep insights into life in South Korea and its class system, it is beautifully acted and stunningly shot – but in the end, it is trickery, and one is reminded of that by its preposterous denouement.

When it finished, I was glad it was over.

3/5

Birds of Prey Review: Harley Quinn’s Mythic Journey

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn transforms from Joker’s love interest to self-realised Loki-style spreader of upheaval and mischief. And it’s one hell of a ride all the way.

From the Golden Age onward, with a few notable exceptions (eg Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy), female comic book characters have too often suffered from being less powerful copies of male originals.

Supergirl (actually the older cousin of Superman) was made younger than Kal-El by a freak of Einsteinian relativity. Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, Batgirl and many others appeared to be created with little originality as cheap enticements to a female readership, or to titillate the boys – or both.

Harley Quinn is in a similar position. Her origin story – she was the Joker’s psychiatrist who fell for him and turned to evil – is an echo of the old stereotype that women are driven by emotions to do bad things at the behest of males – a narrative as ancient as Eve and the Serpent. She’s all too easy to view as the impish, psychotic diminutive version of Mr J.

So, the question is, in a comic book world now burgeoning with fully-realised, powerful female characters, how does Harley Quinn claim an identity for herself away from associations with the Joker?

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) deals with that problem head on. The original title, which has been shortened in theatres to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is far more accurate because at its heart, this movie is about freedom and self discovery.

Its celebration of breaking out from societal constraint is a subversive, radical, deviant message for our times. Oh. And it rocks, too.

It’s also given an original setting. Though tales of slave revolt are nothing new, this one is given a fresh comic book context, when a group of women rebel against the dominance of their various male overlords.

For the journey to begin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has to sink to rock bottom, enduring post-break-up grief over splitting with her mentor and tormentor the Joker. She’s a complete mess, living on the borrowed fear the Joker instils in the hoodlums of Gotham.

She expresses her fucked-up, emotionally dependent state to Black Canary, another woman under a man’s thumb:

“You know what a Harlequin is? A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master, and no-one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”

And so her journey of self-actualisation begins, with a grandiose and potentially suicidal declaration of independence.

The scrapes that follow stem directly from her escaping the Joker’s protective orbit. Because an awful lot of people have a truckload of grievances with Harlene Quinzel they’ve been too afraid to act on.

In the movie’s early stages, a drunk, grieving and fucked-up Quinn is at times vulnerable and so out of control she’s in danger of being raped or horribly murdered – all because she’s now a woman on her own.

“It’s a man’s world,” Black Canary pointedly sings. In that masculine violent hoodlum’s world, she needs to create a space of her own – and it’s not going to be a tiny apartment above a cheap takeaway for long.

Quinn isn’t alone on her journey. Finding her story echoed by each of the main characters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she observes: “…turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Nor is she the only person seeking it in the world, either.

Just like Eve in the Genesis myth, she is the cause of everything that follows from her first act of rebellion against male domination. Unlike Eve, in this story, there’s no-one to judge her nor anyone strong enough to punish her. She acts according to her own lights. Beyond good and evil, she is pure self-serving elemental force. She’s what English Romantic poet William Blake once said Satan stood for – energy.

Harley Quinn is a trickster figure, the Loki of Norse mythology (not the Marvel one), who MAKES THINGS HAPPEN. She’s the driving motor at the movie’s centre, while all the other main characters are fellow travellers, each on journeys of self-realisation.

As with all great tricksters, she’s lucky and cunning in equal measure. And just like Loki, she operates by her own code outside of conventional morality .

Harley Quinn is most definitely not one of the good guys. She is a fighter and a survivor. By the end, she finds her own way by her own rules – no matter how impermanent and nebulous those rules may be. She has her own inner life, and is no longer “Pudding’s” (the Joker’s) distorted reflection.

Harley Quinn is, in many ways, any ambitious person seeking to create their identity in the world. It’s just that she also happens to be a devious, brilliant, witty, funny, remorselessly violent, scatterbrained and totally nuts supervillain.

That’s why she’s able to declare at the end:

“I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you, not Mr J, because I’m Harley freaking Quinn.”

That’s her hero’s journey. What a journey it is. And it’s worth following all the way to its explosive conclusion.

Birds of Prey is at the front line of the culture war, and it’s a crying shame.

The culture war is here again, just as it always is when a female-centred movie appears on the scene.

From some predictable quarters, criticism of the movie has been damning, with a kind of self-satisfied “told you so” coming out of the more insecure, scared and genuinely obnoxious parts of the anti-woman breeding pits of the internet, where some of its least sanitary keyboardistas moulder in their own (unsurprising) celibacy.

Some hostile reviews have basically ballached that movies that don’t include men in their rightful places as kings of a universe in which scantily-clad females prepare themselves for mating in a lardaceous teenager’s fantasy harem are somehow a Marxist attack on Western culture. A quick check of their posting times shows a whole raft of this type of negative review came out before or just as the film was released. No gender agenda here, then.

I do have to wonder what goes on in the minds of fellow males so bereft of self-knowledge and with such fragile egos that they can’t accept a movie in which women are the main drivers of the action.

A search down the twitter feed of many critics, and of their blogs, reveals that (surprise, surprise) many of these same voices attacked previous female-centred movies with exactly the same arguments. It is instructive to see how many now critiquing Birds of Prey by saying it doesn’t have the integrity of Captain Marvel (whom some now hold up as a kind of ideal female-led movie), were in fact dissing the very same Captain Marvel at exactly this period in its release and had predicted failure because the lead was a woman. It’s almost like you’d think they wanted female-led movies to fail or something? Shurrrrly not?!?!

(For those who can’t read this:
“She doesn’t change, grow, or develop… She’s still the same destructive, immature, selfish arsehole she was at the beginning…” – – yep, sounds like a feminist all right.
The replies are equally as insightful.)

Some more philosophical critics attempt to draw a deeper moral lesson with the slogan “get woke, go broke” from any movies that don’t chime with their limited world view. (Remember, that’s a world view in which women submit to their every whim while looking like porn pros with spray-on clothes about to do a spring break shoot.)

No Kyle, the bat is to beat people with, not beat off to.

The moral such critics want to extrapolate is that “woke” movies won’t make money because that is not what the public want. Similar critics also described Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as “woke” but then had to change their minds after their success. Which means, obviously, only a weak box office is an indicator of “wokeness”, not the other way round. Such inverted logic is like saying “trees being uprooted causes hurricanes.” Viewed like that, it’s quite amazing how accurate prediction of past events can be.

It’s true BoP has underperformed* – but it’s got nothing to do with the “wokeness” or otherwise of the movie. It is to do with not getting the marketing, messaging and even title of the movie right, rather than people the world over suddenly hating powerful women-led films that don’t revolve around men, as incels would have us believe. Manboys are just wonderfully sensitive to having their world view questioned, it seems, and basically get very bitchy and whiny when presented with something that does exactly that.

Anyway, with the incels dismissed, we then have supposedly pro-BoP lunacy.

BoP-heads are so enamoured of the movie, so the narrative goes, they are attacking its next rival, Sonic the Hedgehog with complaints of blasphemy and swearing (as if the R-rated BoP doesn’t salt itself with “fuck” all the way through) and advising families to ditch the digital woodpig for the blonde psycho with a mallet (as if that’s going to happen).

And this is where the twitterverse gets weirder. Because Sonic the Hedgehog is not actually out on full theatrical release in the US until 14th February, which means there’s been a whole week of people tweeting how they stormed out of it to watch Birds of Prey… and you figure that one out.

It’s enough to make you paranoid. Are we in the midst of social media psy-ops in which the spreading of contradictory information is designed to destabilise an entire generation of feminists and comic book nerds? Is some nefarious criminal hoping that the lack of narrative will thus become its own narrative of chaos that will bring down the West? Mwahahahaha!

It’s like a comic book.

A closer look at some of these hardcore BoP-stan profiles reveals a definite lack of right-on politics, or that they are such extreme SJWs they must be parody accounts pretending to be “woke” in order to troll… Maybe… And if not, they should be. I mean they are right out there on the fringes of the known universe, with their incel counterparts.

And so, what’s actually going on? Chaos reigns is one answer – which would suit Harley Quinn down to the ground. As to who is posting what, really? Who knows… Because by this point there is no grown-up debate to be had about what went wrong. The twitterverse is having a fit. Birds of Prey has become the kickaround for anyone in the culture war with an axe to grind, and this point right here is where it all descends into madness about who the fuck is tweeting about what and why…

Enough!

My advice to anyone seeing all this twitter crap is, unsee it, now.

Because it’s a crying shame. The movie is not anti-men, or about to collapse the world order in some cataclysmic femocalypse as some would have you believe. (I’m not sure a movie can do that anyway. It’s just a movie.) Nope. Birds of Prey is massive fun from explosive beginning to nutcracking end.

So, if you’re looking for a fun night out and you aren’t in that disproportionately vociferous minority of guys terrified of the women who don’t prostrate themselves before their throbbing maleness, give Birds of Prey a whirl. And if you’re a woman undecided – well, really – what’s to lose? The set design is brilliant, the cinematography pops with vibrant colours and the comedy really works.

That, for me, was the big surprise. It’s a comedy – a violent, raucous comedy about people standing up for themselves after being abused and bullied. That’s a universal message, and just because it happens to be women doing it this time round doesn’t mean it’s the end of the universe, or that us guys’ dicks will fall off when we step into the cinema or there won’t be movies with men as main characters ever again. Honestly, the fragile nature of psychologically-stunted boys who demand the world must be a kind of fantasy porn game in which they are treated with the same respect as the engorged member of Conan the Barbarian, is sad to behold.

Birds of Prey is a violent, joyous funny, movie with shades of the old 1960s camp Batman movie about it. What’s not to like?

Get out there and enjoy it.

*********

*Since writing this piece, I have reviewed the figures for Birds of Prey. As they stand at the end of the second weekend, it looks like word is spreading about what a good film it is.

US take now stands at $61.673m+, while the international take is currently $83.6m, making a global Box Office of $145m+.

These figures mean the whole “flop” narrative is going to have to be challenged. It’s an R-rated movie with a groundbreaking ensemble and none of the “big” characters such as Joker and Wonder Woman, or huge CGI budgets that led to wins for Aquaman and Black Panther.

This is a respectable take as we start Week 2. So, even the assertion that it has failed is wrong. I bought into that, like most others did.

The power of social media, eh?

Why does Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet?

WARNING: SPOILERS.

I watched Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the cinema last night. It was great. Some great dancing to Prokofiev’s score.

And yet, you do have to ask the question, when does something stop being an “interpretation” or “adaptation” and just become a new thing?

That’s certainly a valid question for this piece. It is not the classic reviewers’ phrase “a stark reimagining” of the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Shakespeare tale, and here is why:

This show is set in a kind of asylum for ill-behaved children.

There was no clear sense of “two houses divided”, of rival Montagus and Capulets.

Tybalt was a prison guard who continually rapes Juliet before Romeo turns up.

The rape of Juliet is irrelevant to the unwinding of the story.

Juliet and Romeo strangle Tybalt to death.

The tragedy that comes from the trick of fake suicide and is followed by a double suicide is at the very heart of the story. It was replaced by manslaughter and a remorseful suicide.

So, weighed up, the whole thing was NOTHING AT ALL to do with Romeo and Juliet.

It was more like the show should have been called:

“Matthew Bourne’s troupe dance to the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but have nothing to do with the story.”

But I guess that is less catchy.

Carnival Row – A fairytale for our dark times

Having just watched the entire run of the first series of Carnival Row, I can only say – when’s the next one?

Set in an alternative world more sinister and brutal than Lyra’s in His Dark Materials, this is most definitely a fable for grown-ups.

We discover here a well-realised world in which Victorian-level technology intersects with the wonders and magic of the creatures of Tir Na Nog – a once-fabled realm of real pixies, centaurs and other mythological beasts – whose unspoiled natural homeland two rival empires battle to rule: The Iron Pact and the Burgh.

When the Burgh withdraws from the war, leaving Tir Na Nog in the hands of the even more brutal Iron Pact, refugees come flooding into The Burgh, leading to all kinds of unsettling developments which strain the already tearing fabric of Burgh society.

This, then, is the setting for a very real discussion of the nature of racism in the realm of faery and humans. The half-human half-ram race of “pucks” are essentially slaves in the Burgh, and all Fae, nicknamed Kritches, are despised by human society. But there are glimmers of civilization, and acceptance among a few – and one strand that even echoes Beauty and the Beast in a very much grittier setting.

The story is brilliantly unwound. At times a love story, at others a devastating commentary on populist politicians who seek to create chaos in order to provide themselves with opportunities for advancement, at others still a version of Ripper Street with fairies, and occasionally a commentary on inter-racial (inter-species!?) sex and relationships, the show is beautifully filmed.

Cara Delevingne has a powerful presence, and Orlando Bloom is expertly matched as the grizzled and hardened inspector seeking to track down a murderer who is killing Fae folk. The scripting is usually pitch perfect with very, very occasional lapses into predictable dialogue.

In all, it’s a steampunk dream with a very dark edge, splashed with power hunger, bigotry and the desperate need to find love and meaning in a world that before our eyes lurches further and further to the right. If this isn’t a fairytale for our dark times, I don’t know what is!

When The Snow Witch Escaped Me

As a writer, I’m going through something of an adjustment at the moment. Something I never really factored into my experience as an author is happening to me.

To explain – some time ago I wrote a novel based in Portsmouth called The Snow Witch. I personally know it’s the best piece of fiction writing I’ve ever done. I wrote it in a particularly ethereal style, but made the characters and the town really gritty and real. Some I made deliberately enigmatic. This combination led to the book coming out in the genre of magical realism.

Magical realism is a fabulous genre. It mixes the allegorical, the real and the mystical into a quite addictive brew that plays with your sense of what is possible.

I knew I had done something right when people who read it approached me and told me how much they enjoyed it. Over and over again. I was selling my books off a market stall once, telling a prospective customer about it, when a previous buyer marched across to me having spotted me, their arm outstretched, stared at me intensely and pronounced: “That’s brilliant!” then marched off.

This is deeply gratifying.

But recently, an artist, Lucille Scott from Little Duck Forge approached me and asked me if she could run an art exhibition based on the book. This was again, deeply flattering. So, we are having an art exhibition in Cascades in autumn 2019 based on the book. 40 artists have signed up for it. It is quite extraordinary.

Then, another artist came to me, asking to make the book the centre of another arts project. This has become Cursed City – which tells another new story of Donitza Kravitch, the book’s eponymous witch – that takes place in Portsmouth, though social media, street art and live events.

Much of the original story takes place in The Model Village, Southsea. Last Thursday I went down there to meet up with local artist James Waterfield and Roy Hanney, who is the creator of this project. James is a great local artist, and he had been working on a secret project as part of Cursed City.

James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead
James Waterfield, AKA, Lawn of the Dead

He had created two figurines to place in the Model Village both depicting characters from my book. I looked at them and had a moment of real dumbfoundedness. Basically, I was holding an action figure in my hand that was his conception of Donitza. Someone had made a whole new work of art based on my creation!

I’ve worked with artists before, but nothing – absolutely nothing like this has ever happened to me. It felt surreal. Like, a thing that I thought of had come to life, stepped into reality, independently of me. I didn’t know what to think.

The figurines of Donitza playing her violin and Reynold Lissitch pasting up street art are now safely installed in the village. And I feel like reality is shifting for me. That Donitza has escaped the pages of my book, and begun to take on a life of her own. And I am standing, watching her move and grow, and am bewildered.

A New Book – Mysteries of Portsmouth, Chapter 1

01. Ancient Mysteries of Portsmouth

The earliest accounts of Portsmouth

Most historians agree the little Hampshire village of Portchester is the father of the city of Portsmouth, and was already an ancient settlement when Portsmouth was a muddy island with a few fishing and hunting communities scattered across it. Portchester’s Roman castle (the best preserved example north of the Alps) dates back to the 3rd Century, and was built as part of the Saxon Shore defences designed to protect Britain from marauding Saxon invaders. But even back then when Portus Adurni was new (as the Romans called Portchester Castle), the settlement at Portchester was already ancient.

Before we jump into the mysteries and legends of Portchester, let’s look at what we know for sure about the village and castle, at the point it emerges from the mists of myth into history.

Portchester – Heart of an Empire

The man in command of Portchester Castle and the rest of the Saxon Shore castles just after they were built in the 3rd Century was also the commander of the Classis Britannica, the Roman Fleet that protected the English Channel from pirates. Carausius had started as a Belgian pilot and fighter, but proved so effective as a leader of men that he rose through the ranks of the fleet. A brilliant sea fighter, he had impressive success in quelling Saxon and Frankish piracy in the English Channel, both in Gaul and Britain and was given control of the fleet.

However, rumours soon began to circulate around Rome that Carausius often would wait for Saxon pirates to make raids before he engaged with them – thus enabling him to help himself to the treasure they had stolen, and keep it for himself.

Whether this was the gossip of jealous rivals or true, the effect was that in 286, Roman Emperor Diocletian sentenced Carausius to death. This proved to be a tactical error, because Carausius was still in Britain at the time. When Carausius heard he was being recalled to Rome to meet his fate, he realised he had nothing to lose, declared Britain a separate empire equal to Rome, and drove off Roman attacks.

Secure in his independence behind his forts, Carausius set about creating a rival state to Rome. He minted his own coins from high quality bullion that he hoped would boost his credibility over his Roman rivals and set about running an independent Britannia.

This early version of Brexit came to an end after his betrayal in 293 by his treasurer, Allectus, and Britain was once again taken back under Roman Imperial control.

Carausius’s story is a pretty exciting early history… but there are many more myths and legends. They include bloodthirsty betrayals, murder, a giant, the Holy Grail… and even King Arthur himself!

The Myth of Ferrex and Perrex

Ancient chronicler and recorder of unreliable histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History Of The Kings Of Britain in the 1200s that the original British name for Portchester was Caer Peris. He tells the following story as to how it got its name:

Around 491 BCE, two brothers lived in terrible rivalry. They were the sons of King Sisil “The Fox”, who founded the town of Silchester, and was so successful a leader that he was declared supreme chieftain of the area.

Though he had been a great chieftain, he hadn’t been able to control the bitter rivalry between his two sons Ferrex and Perrex, and after he died, they went to war with each other to gain control of their father’s lands. Ferrex, his mother’s favourite, was forced to retreat to Gaul by Perrex after a fierce battle. When Ferrex raised an army and returned to fight his brother, things went wrong for him again. This time, Perrex defeated and slew his brother.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Perrex set about founding the fortified town where the Roman Portchester Castle would later stand, naming it Caer Peris – that is, Perrex’s Castle.

This is not the end of the story, however. Perrex’s mother, Idon, enraged at the fate of her favourite son, stole into Perrex’s room while he was asleep, and with the help of her maidens “cut him all in pieces.”

This is not a recommended model of motherhood.

Gurguntus and Beline

Another mythical beginning to Portchester is told by a later historian, Stow, who attributes the founding of Porchester to Gurguntus, the son of Beline in the year 375 BCE. However, Stow also says the same thing happened in Norwich with the same people in the same year – so it might be that he got a little bit muddled.

Nothing much more is offered about this supposed founding of the fortifications – however, it should be said there are many archaeological remains dating back to the pre-Christian era in the area. So, whether there’s any truth in these early myths or not, there’s no doubt there was early settlement and the building of defensive structures in the Portchester long before the Romans came.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pompey (or Cymbeline’s sons, anyway)

The next mention Geoffrey of Monmouth makes of Caer Peris brings is to the First Century, during the period the Romans were still quelling the troublesome and rebellious Britons, after the Roman invasion in the year 43.

This account involves a young British king, Guiderius, the son of one king Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline to anyone who knows their Shakespeare.

“After the death of Cymbeline,” writes Geoffrey, “the government of Britain fell to Guiderius, his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, Emperor of Rome, marched against him.”

The story goes that Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris, and “began to block up the gate with a wall,” probably with the view of starving the inhabitants into surrender.

In the fighting that followed, Hamo killed Guiderius.

However, this was not the end of the matter. Guiderius’s brother, Arviragus, mightily enraged, took command of the Britons. They fought so desperately under him that they drove the Romans back to their galleys.

Once more, this was not the end of the matter. Later, when the Britons had departed, Claudius assaulted the fortification again, and this time he took it for Rome.

The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

King Arthur and the invasion of Portsmouth

Another ancient story about the defence of Portsmouth takes us fully into the realms of Arthurian Romance.

Many of the early King Arthur stories date back to a time when Britain was being invaded by Saxon tribes, just after the Romans had left Britain’s shores as the Empire came under increasing attack at the centre.

The reality or otherwise of King Arthur is hotly debated. Whether Arthur was an imaginary folk hero spoken about around British camp fires to keep up British morale hundreds of years later, a soldier in the battles that occurred between the Britons and the Saxons, a vestige of a sungod (the twelve battles he fights that push him further West, his death, disappearance in the west and subsequent promised return are an interesting echo of the twelve months of the year, sunset and sunrise) or something else, doesn’t really matter for this book. The stories that have been woven around this most enigmatic of figures who stands on the boundaries of history and mythology are as rich in story detail as he is elusive in fact. But what’s great about Arthur is the amazing amount of stories this figure has inspired.

From soldier, through war leader, to king and finally emperor of a vast land, the legends about Arthur are increasingly embellished by the romance writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, the first description of Arthur as “emperor” is found in connection with Portsmouth. It’s in a poem dedicated to the death of another Celtic hero of Welsh literature – Geraint mab Erbin, that is, Geraint son of Erbin.

Geraint was a popular figure associated with southwestern Britain and South Wales in the late 6th century. He became most famous for an entirely fictional romance written about him in Welsh called Geraint and Enid, which mimics a similar 12th Century poem by French mediaeval poet Chretien de Troyes.

But Geraint had been around in literature long before this romance, and older poems speak about him as a real person. Thus, the very much earlier poem Geraint son of Erbin appears to be a true lament for the death of a British hero, killed in battle.

The location of the confrontation is given as Llongborth – meaning “haven of ships”, which writers and historians have identified with Langport in Somerset – or with Portsmouth harbour. The poem tells of the slaying of Geraint, a Celtic prince, by the Saxons in the 6th Century.

Could the ancient poem really be Portsmouth-related? Is there any other evidence of a battle in the 6th Century in Portsmouth in which a British hero was killed?

Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also contain a mention of the invasion of Portsmouth for the year 501 , as follows:

Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.

Is it possible that the poem Geraint mab Erbin actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? And if Geraint a figure of myth was real, is it possible there was an Arthur after all?

It’s circumstantial evidence, but there are plenty who are convinced it’s true!

Ancient Burials and Brutal Deaths on Portsdown Hill

Staying on the theme of slain ancient warriors, it’s worth noting that at the top of Portsdown Hill as you head east toward the cutting where the A3(M) now slices through the chalk cliffs at the Havant end, around 1816, a tantalising discovery was made by labourers. Local historian Lake Allen tells the story in his 1817 History of Portsmouth:

Some labourers being employed in quarrying chalk during the month of September last, accidentally broke into a tumulus situated on the South side of the hill near the telegraph. The form of it appeared to be a parallelogram, extending East and West about 100 feet, in breadth about 20 feet, and in height 6 feet. In this tumulus or Barrow were discovered the remains of twelve bodies, some placed in cists, others laid only on the surface of the chalk, and covered by heaping the surrounding soil on them. The skeleton that was last discovered occupied a grave distinct from the others, but evidently too short for the stature of the person interred; loose flags were placed on it, their ends resting on the chalk. The radius and ulna were laid across the frame; the latter was the only bone entire, and was rather shorter than that of a well proportioned man. The occipital bone bore marks of petrifaction, and at the juncture of the temporal with the parietal bone, on the right side, was found inserted an iron head of a spear.

What became of these relics I do not know. But is it possible that the spearhead found in this body was none other than the one used by Porta to slay Geraint mab Erbin? It’s too much of a coincidence, surely..? And since we can’t examine the orginals, how can we ever know? But a man in a tomb, killed by an iron spear, hurriedly buried under loose flagstones by a vanquished army… is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to at least wish it were true?

Bevis’s Grave

Another archaeological site with mythical connotations lies near the one described by Lake Allen on Portsdown Hill. Again, heading east toward the motorway bridge, in the fields north of the road is the site of an ancient burial mound, Bevis’s Grave.

This was a giant long barrow – around 88m by 25m long with ditches to north and south. These days, it is largely buried, with only a part of it rising about half a metre above the ground. Nevertheless, it is actually about 4,500 to 5,500 years old. Part of an antler, probably the remains of a pick, was excavated from the ditches, along with sherds of late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery.

In fact, the whole area along the crest of Portsdown Hill is rich in archaeological sites. Nearby is an area of early medieval burials, including two Saxon burials and eighty Christian graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Who knew, as you take your dog for a walk or drive down into Havant that you are surrounded by so many relics of the deep, distant past?

So, back to Bevis. Who was he? And why is this his grave?

Bevis was a mediaeval knight from a Middle English romance called Sir Bevis of Hampton from around 1324. (Those of my generation will understand when I say I don’t believe that anywhere in the text is a mention of a companion or squire called Sir Butthead.)

Here are the bare bones of the romance:

Bevis is the son of Guy, count of Hampton (aka Southampton). Guy’s young wife, a daughter of the King of Scotland is unhappy in marriage and asks a former lover, Devoun, Emperor of Germany, to kill her husband. He happily sends an army to oblige and Guy is murdered in a forest. Fearful that their ten-year-old son Bevis will seek revenge, she decides that he, too, must die.

Saved by a faithful tutor, the young Bevis is later sold to pirates. After many adventures, Bevis ends up at the court of King Hermin, which is situated either in Egypt or Armenia – the writer is a bit vague on the details of where exactly. Bevis is involved in numerous exploits, including the defeat of Ascapart, a legendary giant from English folklore, and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Josiane. The king then sends Bevis on a mission to deliver a sealed letter to King Bradmond of Damascus. Bevis, not realising the letter requests Bradmond to execute him duly delivers it. He is imprisoned, escapes, finally wreaks vengeance on his stepfather and claims his inheritance. However, he is then separated from Josiane, and both are forced into false marriages, until in the end they are reunited at last.

It would make a great movie.

So, there it is. Though the barrow’s original inhabitant is long forgotten, a wonderful story has filled it with fresh life.

And that is the nature of legends, after all.

Hayling Island – home of the Holy Grail?

Whilst we are looking at ancient mysteries and the Celts, let’s have a look at another figure from the Roman era who some legends say came to Britain. That is none other than Jesus Christ.

A particular theory I stumbled over in an unusual pamphlet some time ago comes from the pen of a now-deceased local writer called Victor Pierce Jones. It puts forward the eccentric idea that the Holy Grail was, or is, buried at Hayling Island. In his book Glastonbury Myth or Southern Mystery, the author seeks to prove that “Jesus travelled from the Holy Land as a youth, lived on the south coast and was given a cup when he departed”- a cup which Joseph of Arimathea brought back to Britain after Christ’s death on the cross, “returning it to his first disciples and friends” in no place other than Havant – which is actually the “real site of Avalon”.

Further questions raised by the author include: “Did Merlin live at My Lord’s Pond, on Hayling Island? Did King Arthur find Excalibur at Havant? Was the Holy Grail found by Benedictine monks and a Knight Templar on Hayling – and is it still hidden there?”

Along the way, the author manages to include many of the ancient sites already mentioned in this book and some of its characters. King Arthur gets a look in, as does Bevis, William the Conqueror and countless duplicitous Glastonbury monks. Argued with a passion, it is quite joyous and, I personally think, completely bonkers.

But that’s just me. The construction of the argument is a work of art, and for seekers after mysteries, it’s a slim volume with which you can fill your boots!

An Ancient Ghost, A Countess Beheaded

There are many ghost stories associated with Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Here is one from Warblington to whet your appetite:

Five hundred years ago at Warblington, by the ever-moving waters of Langstone Harbour once stood a magnificent castle, of which only a few vestiges remain, and on whose ruins in the 18th century, a farmhouse was built. In its heyday it was one of the chief guesthouses of the Earls of Salisbury. The ghost that haunts the site is that of the unhappy Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. She once lived here in great state, dividing much of her time between Warblington and Lordington Manor, near Racton, which was commissioned by her husband Richard.

Their children included Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the last Catholic Archbishop of England during the period of the Reformation, in which Henry came into direct conflict with Rome. Cardinal Pole was unbending in his attitudes to Henry VIII and strongly criticised him for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He also warned against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sensing danger from the king’s growing impatience and anger with him, Cardinal Pole went into exile in France, where he finally denounced Henry to the other princes of Europe.

The ruthless tyrant Henry VIII attempted an assassination of Pole, but when this failed avenged himself by having Pole’s family arrested. His mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up political charges. She was finally beheaded at Tower Hill in 1541, the last surviving issue from the direct male bloodline of the Plantagenet kings of England. Only one family member survived, her son Geoffrey Pole, who fled into exile in Europe. The Pole family was thus completely destroyed as a dynasty by their spiteful and merciless king.

Accounts of Margaret’s execution tell of a grisly end.

On the morning of 27 May 1541, in front of a crowd of 150 people, Lady Pole was led to the scaffold where she was expected to say a few pious words and submit to her fate. But the 67-year-old had no intention of going quietly. She refused to kneel or lay her head on the block, and told the executioner he would have to strike her head off where she stood. Guards roughly took her resisting form to the block, where the executioner raised his axe… and – thrown off his stroke by her defiance – swung the blade and struck her in the shoulder.

In agony, Lady Pole jumped up shrieking, gushing blood into her white hair. The executioner chased her, wildly swinging his axe. It took eleven bloody blows before she finally died. Legend in the Tower of London says that on the anniversary of her death, her ghost is seen in the night, her white hair streaming with blood from her many wounds – forever pursued by her phantom executioner.

After the destruction of the Pole family, the estate was forfeited to the Crown, and a few years later, Thomas Cromwell had Warblington Castle demolished. What was left of it then fell into decay and farmhouses were built over part of it.

A local story tells of a different sighting of a spirit at the site. It says that the ghost of the beheaded and tragic Countess Margaret Pole haunts the ruins, as she mourns the passing of her lost life and her magnificent home.

How the mighty may fall!

*

Please note – There are many more ghost stories to come in the pages of this book, but first, let’s discover the Lost Lands around Portsmouth…

Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett

Love.

Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

Good Night, Knight And Lee, Southsea.

As the retail ritual of closing up, bending down to secure the floor bolt then reaching up for the top bolt on the double doors of Knight and Lee was enacted for the last time at 5pm on July 13th 2019, a crowd of around 50 middle-aged, middle-class shoppers suddenly looked as if their spiritual heartland had been nuked.

The scene was made both more poignant and absurd as it came at the end of a set sung to the collected mourners by Rockchoir.com, which had included classics such as (ironically enough) I’m Still Standing, a mournful version of Only You and the spiritual hope of Hallejujah. It was (as it should have been) like a religious service in commemoration of a departed loved one.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad to see Knight and Lee go from Palmerston Road. Its stalwart service to the local community is well known. Its position in the corner of Palmerston Road and Clarendon Road, opposite the soon-to-close Debenhams that was once Handley’s Department Store together created a presence – a bit like the great statues in the Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship arrives in Gondor. These two shops did not announce to invading hordes “You shall not pass”, but were sentinels guarding a near-lost civilization called High Street Retail.

Yet the loss of this aspect of civilization at least in part lies at the feet of these very retailers.

Yes, Amazon most definitely enjoys an unfair advantage in cyberspace – not having to pay the same levels of staff, able to operate out of warehouses with considerably lower business rates, not needing to use expensive space to put items on display – and perhaps most importantly for Amazon, being able to avoid paying tax, and thus giving absolutely NOTHING back to local communities.

But Amazon’s advantage to one side, there is also a hard lesson retailers have failed to learn. That lesson is you can’t out-Amazon Amazon. You have to offer something different from what Amazon offers. And let’s face it, what DOES Amazon offer? The answer is stark – it offers cheapness and fast delivery with no fuss.

The High Street was never going to be able to compete on those terms of mass storage, immense ordering power and wafer-thin bottom lines that empower Amazon, and what it failed to do was change.

In a world in which more and more people are shopping online, we are equally seeing a world in which there is less and less face-to-face human interaction, and more and more isolation. Anxiety, societal dysfunction, depression, these are all symptoms of society no longer fitting together and functioning properly. That isolation has led to record levels of suicides. Human beings are social creatures. We may not acknowledge it, but we need people. The reality is, the chat in the Post Office or outside the butcher of the old days was as much a part of the shopping experience as the retail high shoppers used to get in the 1980s laden with designer goods on their ways home from Oxford Street – and probably still do at Westfield, Oxford Street, Gunwharf and other destination shopping complexes. But those are different creatures from the town High Street, that now needs to find its own model.

It’s no surprise that businesses that are thriving on the High Street are classically those businesses that focus on uplifting vibes.

Coffee houses where people meet, barbers, hairdressers and nail bars where people can chat – and charity shops where you can buy stuff you just can’t get anywhere else and which catch your eye and leave you feeling clever for being the one who snapped the bargain – all these have at their hearts the same thing: good feelings.

What retailers like Knight and Lee need to learn is that in a world which is increasingly global we need to offer locally those things the globalist offer can’t give.

That means face-to-face contact in a real location with real people. In fact, the answer to globalism is that old word localism – though I don’t mean it in the David Cameron context of Big Society or any other thing that has the initials B.S.

Portsmouth and Southsea are actually extremely well placed to offer that approach to locals and visitors alike.

We are, after all, fiercely proud of our local identity. I’ve often been told by visitors that Portsmouth has a sense of self in a way many other English towns don’t, whose High Streets have already been cloned into mini faceless shopping streets that are now on their last legs. To counter the bland flavours and products made in China that play the numbers game, making tiny profits per transaction from clone products that sell to billions, we in Portsmouth need to go the other way. To recognize our uniqueness and make that our selling point.

So, good luck to Knight and Lee and its staff. I am sorry to see you go. Let’s take our hats off to the service you provided. But now it’s time to start taking our lives back from the globalists who are shaping our lives. Not through silly nationalist notions, because globalisation isn’t going to go away – that’s just not a possibility unless you have in mind dismantling the internet and disinventing the jet engine – but by going local and making a celebration of who we are and our uniqueness – as a counterbalance to ever-present globalism – to thus give people the choice and the rounded experience they want and need as they go down to the marketplace.

Time to build community pride and offer world class products and experiences you can’t get elsewhere. We already have so many of them in Portsmouth. The Dockyard is an extraordinary world class experience. The Solent Forts are unique. Businesses such as the Portsmouth Distillery are offering something truly special. The Victorious Festival, the way we did D-Day 75 despite all that interference from Washington in the planning – these are the things we should be looking for to show the way. There are so many others – the list is very long of big and small, local businesses offering something special, right on our doorsteps. We do great things here, and they are uniquely ours and this is what we should be focusing on.

Because, unlike on Amazon, people ain’t going to get THAT Pompey vibe anywhere else. Our local identity – that is our greatest asset.

RIP Knight and Lee.

Viva Pompey.