Opinion

Why enhancement of Old Portsmouth’s arches is a good thing.

I just had an email through from petition site 38 Degrees about petitions regarding the Portsmouth Arches.

Part of the arches enhancement

They wrote that “Anita”, the petitioner who wants to “save” the arches, argues:

“Please do not allow Old Portsmouth’s historic arches to become low-rent art studios, cafes and a brasserie. Residents are objecting to this development for the same reasons that any person would object to a proposal to plant a café in the middle of Stonehenge.

What we have now is an area of international repute and interest. Once it has been tampered with, it will have gone forever.”

Here is what I wrote back:

Hi,

Thanks, I have already voted.

I will be clear about this. Those arches are NOT comparable historically to Stonehenge – making such a statement is idiotic and shows a lack of understanding of the relative importance of 1) a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site on the one hand and 2) a cleared building site that has been too long neglected on the other.

The Barracks whose foundation outlines can be seen on the ground outside the arches were knocked down in the 1950s. The arches are all that remains of that complex of buildings, being the place where the gunports designed to protect the harbour were sited.

If your nimbyist is so keen on historical authenticity, then I suggest she petitions to get the barracks rebuilt, a thousand or so soldiers billetted there, the pubs reopened down the road, the brothels opened at Point and some good old-fashioned interservice fighting arranged for the weekends.

The cleared ground that sits by the arches at the moment is prime development ground, and the current empty space exists at a transitional point between developments on the site. It has been left like this for far too long and people have simply got used to it. Its current status is that of an abandoned development site.

The phrase “low rent” arches implies a certain snobbishness in your petitioner’s attitude, as if somehow that is a bad thing. Drawing artists into areas has been shown time and time again to be an asset to an area. Viz St Ives, Hackney, Brick Lane, etc.

I believe that development at the arches in the manner suggested will have two positive effects:

1) it will support art in the area, hard on the heels of which will follow money and will raise property prices even further in this area.

2) it will put good use to a dust-blown empty space that reeks of piss after a Friday night, while protecting it from being developed more fully.

A win all round.

Anita can swivel.

Thank you,

Matthew Wingett
Freelance Writer

To vote – here are the two petitions:

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/enhance-arches

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/save-arches

Punchdrunk’s “The Drowned Man” – Review by Matt Wingett

We were tipped out of a darkened lift into more darkness, a handful of audience members about to experience Punchdrunk’s cult offering, The Drowned Man.

I came to a parking lot strewn with recently vacated film studio caravans, each filled with the discarded personal belongings of imagined 1950s/60s stars of Temple Studios. Unmade beds in the semi-darkness, little notes pinned on walls – clues maybe, about what the night might hold in store. I wandered into a bar. A woman was singing a mournful song to a man perched on the counter.

The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk

I watched them play out a scene of sulky shattered romance and then wandered next door where another man had just finished dancing with a woman. Rumbling chords and subdued lighting. Suddenly, he dashed to a pair of doors. Ah, some action, I thought, and followed. At the door, he turned to me and said: “Leave me, don’t follow me.” – A provocation if ever I had one. Soon a group of us 20 masked audience members gathered at the foot of a stairwell to watch him.

He climbed on the banister and put his feet on the wall, acting out being pulled up the stairwell, with extraordinary muscular movements. He looked like a puppet, but no strings attached.

I followed him up the stairs. At the top, he warned us off again as he entered a darkened room, shooting us his best tortured look before turning away. Once again, we ignored his warning and followed.

Through darkness and pools of subdued light, he made his way across a desert floor to an altar where a congregation of 20 scarecrows were seated. The altar was a makeshift affair made of desert detritus. He leant upon it. A live scarecrow rose from the congregation, took hold of him and they danced a struggle together. The scarecrow dragged his lifeless form to a tent where I watched him for a few minutes, before wandering around to look at a solitary sandy hill and a wooden cabin.

I returned. Our lifeless man was still in his tent, so I looked for other action. The scarecrow had gone to an office at one end of the room. I followed him and watched him change out of his clothing… Then he made his way from the room.

And cut! Time for a quick pee.

I wandered into a tiled 1930s-style toilet room that had once been used by countless posties, and took a moment to consider. Was this part of the set? Or was it actually an old Post Office toilet?  It was the latter, I decided.

The Drowned Man was set inside a building previously used as a massive Royal Mail sorting office near Paddington Underground. The loo I was in was a glimpse beneath the greasepaint and I savoured it as such for its incongruousness and cheeky irrelevance to the main show.

A masked man entered the toilet and pulled his mask off, clearly uncomfortable.  “It’s weird,” he said to me. “It’s all very, very weird.”

I felt for him. That sorting office is a very big space to feel adrift in.

For me the strangeness wasn’t a problem. After all, we know we’re entering a made-up world the moment we enter the building and a camp elevator-boy invites us into the studios to enjoy a “post-wrap party” in a faux American accent. The moment we don our nightmarish skeletal masks in order to distinguish us from the actors, our psychology is altered. If they’d wanted to give a masterclass in experiencing firsthand Sartre’s Existentialist paranoid alienation, Punchdrunk couldn’t have done better.

No doubt about it, the little world inside that sorting office is extraordinary. A continual soundtrack resounds through every room in the massive space, seemingly sampled from the darkest moments of Twin Peaks. Rumbling chords fill the void with a sense of impending doom and invisible danger. It’s the sort of soundtrack you hear at the movies when an unseen observer watches an ill-fated protagonist about to be murdered.

Of course, in this case, we are the unseen observers… Oh how post-post-post-modern!  I can imagine how pleased everyone in the troupe was with that little conceit.

At this stage, early in the night, I was hopeful that I would be able to piece together the story of why the man had been left in the tent. I left the puzzled man hiding in the loo and headed out from my pit stop to find out more. Just a little bit of close attention, I kidded myself, and the narrative will unfold. To make that work, I decided I needed to take hold of a character and follow them through the evening, then things would fit together.

Here’s what happened next:

I followed one woman as she got drunk with a Pierrot in a tent in the desert. Then she danced with a film company executive on a table in a boardroom and was given a script. She then listened to a recording on a Dictaphone of her child reciting a poem. Cleverly, the electronics in the room synchronised the sound so that half way through the poem the child’s voice (it was not a child’s voice, it was an adult actor pretending to be a child) from the Dictaphone synchronised with a booming hellish voice coming over the speakers and she looked a bit disturbed. It was, perhaps, an artistic representation of schizophrenia.

I then followed her to a film sound effects room where she nearly drowned the alcoholic Pierrot I had encountered previously. His was an impressive feat of breath-holding.

Then, after she had nearly drowned him, the Pierrot kind of shrugged it off and the action continued.

And suddenly, my attention started to wander. That near-drowning was a turning point for me. It was when I stopped caring about the characters. Because they weren’t characters. They were caricatures – and inconsistent ones at that who didn’t behave like people. Someone tries to drown you, for Pete’s sake!  And you just smile and get on with it. Bollocks.

I’ll be frank. I had expected something cleverer than this. Yes, each room was no less than a superb art installation, although the pervading gloom made the design difficult to appreciate. And they had overlaid these stunning sets with these unsettling sounds to produce a very specific, miserable mood pallet. It was experientially extraordinary. It was a spectacle.

But there was no let-up in the brooding mood and the whole experience was deeply oppressive. I remember walking into a wig room on one floor finding myself surrounded by weird images, hair and human heads, mirrors and the mess of life. Amazing? Sure. In the way Tate Modern is amazing. I stepped into another room out of curiosity. The floor was planted with dried flowers which gave a pungent smell and which cast nightmarish shadows on the walls. Nothing happened in that room. I stood there for a moment, enjoying the beauty of it, and the loneliness, and the quiet – a release from the relentless darkness and noise of the sound stages. It was, I thought, American Gothic meets the Tate Modern.

It was then I realised I was bored. Two hours in, and nothing had come together. I’d seen lots of different dance vignettes. I’d seen an orgy where a man is stripped naked and mounted by a woman in a red dress. I’d followed a woman and seen her take some scissors from the rafters of her dressing room. Then I’d seen her drag that same man to the top of a wooded hill and murder him – the tail end of a scene I’d already watched before, and at last I had a little bit of narrative, which was all rather heavy handed…

I happened on the woman in the sound room again, just about to half drown her Pierrot again. She was obviously performing on a loop. I thought: “Oh, it’s like channel-hopping and getting a series of repeats.” I was annoyed by the lack of development.

Yes, I know the performance was “fractured”. That is the trendy word to describe it. I’m sure motifs within it were meant to raise those sorts of questions so often encouraged at University and art school by young lecturers with creased brows. You know: What is reality? Are we in control of our own fates? What is real and what is imagined?

But when I saw the murder on the hill for a second time, I was well on my way to looking for the remote control and switching off.

Since no-one behaved like real people anyway, a murder on a hill wasn’t really a murder on a hill, and it didn’t matter whether this was being filmed for Temple Studios and was a wrap or was a “real” murder. After all, everything was made up anyway.

What was the night made of? Essentially, a series of dance vignettes. That’s basically it. At the end of the show, we got one more vignette: A woman got into a pond and lifted a drowned man. Then it rained – a little square of tears falling on the pond from the ceiling, while she drew her expression into one of pre-Raphaelite anguish.

By then, I was pissed off and I wanted to go back home to something that is genuinely and totally weird.

Real life.

The Irresistible Appeal of Sex With Strangers…

For some sexual adventurers, the idea of having sex with a stranger has a definite frisson. As one dogger puts it:

“Sex with no strings, where you’re never going to see them again, so it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a good job or a bad job – what could be better? Of course it’s addictive.”

That’s the basis of Channel 4’s “Dogging Tales” which lifts the lid on the nocturnal activities of nature lovers with something of a difference.

Terry lives out "every man's dream"in Channel 4's "Dogging Tales"
Terry lives out “every man’s dream”in Channel 4’s “Dogging Tales”

For those in love with the idea of this night time sport, who fancy the idea of stealing into the night and bumping and grinding with a “furry triangle” (“and for free!” as one dogger proudly tells us), this is a perfect test as to whether you’re the right stuff.

The peculiar glass-eyed interviewee who first graces our screens from behind his owl mask, Les, dispels any ideas that this is going to reveal a deep experience. Vapid and everyday in his flat delivery describing ploughing through hundreds of women while untold numbers do the same to his partner in an evening, the only exotic elements in the interview are embodied in his collection of tropical birds.

Of course, it’s the lack of depth that appeals to doggers – who come in the night from all angles, it appears.

“I’ve met people from all walks of life, I’ve met undertakers, solicitors, vicars – the whole lot,” the husband of one dedicated dogging wife with a porn star’s body tells us.

From saddos to addicts, to bored couples, Dogging Tales shows it how it is, but tries not to tell us who it is, adding to the weirdness by getting everyone to wear animal masks for their privacy – simultaneously hammering home that we’re in the kingdom of the beasts, here.

So many people are hunting for something to fill the void, if you will excuse the pun. And although it appears to be a sad exercise at first, don’t let that fool you. It remains one all the way through.

Compulsion, addiction, body dysmorphia and the hit of sex to briefly dispel the surrounding darkness – you are watching lonely people in the midst of existential crisis – surrounded by darkness, little figures of solipsistic, warm softness in the night. It’s philosophical. Jean-Paul Sartre could have been a dogger. He probably was.

There are hilarious moments. Tiny little pipsqueak Terry and his rotund girlfriend are strangely depressing figures pushed to experiment by his 7 day working week and her libido that has lured her to cheat on him. He announces that he entertains “every man’s dream” of wanting two women. Two weeks later, he is interviewed on his sofa again, squeezed between two massive women, a blinking schoolboy flanked by two domineering aunties.

But when he is suddenly confronted with the reality of a stranger fondling his girlfriend, that’s too much for him. He’s a little frightened fellow, who goes home in a tizzy. It’s comedic-philosophic and suddenly profound. Terry, like many men, clearly is uncomfortable when his fantasies come face-to-face with reality in a freezing cold dark wood that he’s nearly fallen over in.

Those animal masks add something else to the proceedings. They make you think of a pagan rite that has suddenly re-emerged in the emptying countryside – a kind of pointless ritual that relieves for a few minutes the emptiness of existence, rather than being an atavistic homage to the phallus/fertility-cult.

Though not entirely – because there is fertility here and something very primal and very basic. Surprisingly, despite his glass eye and adenoidal voice, Les has 18 children and, as he announces, he can’t get a condom big enough to fit.

As for an ordinary member of the public who complains about the condoms in the woods and how the doggers abuse nature, there is no straightforward message about taste and morals here, as he promptly empties his dog over the nature reserve that was previously used as a dogging spot. The countryside is there to be abused, it seems. The image of beautiful Nature fouled is too obvious to comment on.

It’s a strange world, and it’s an odd fantasy. But, if you look at these people and you find nothing peculiar in what they are doing, and you aren’t a little saddened by the way they  have come to this pass, then well done. You just might make the grade.

 

The Mythology of Margaret – Thatcher And The Myth Machine

When you hear people pronouncing vehemently on a person who came to power before they were born and speaking in terms of utter disgust and anger, you realise that you are no longer in the presence of history or debate, you are in the presence of folk mythology.

Margaret ThatcherJust so with the myriad commentators on the death of Margaret Thatcher, who have for the last 24 hours heaped imprecations and opprobrium on the name. Couple with that the jubilation at her death and the whole “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” attitude of some commentators who were born after she came to power and who can barely even remember her, and you realise how easy it must be for the reflex of Jihad to be instilled into the minds of the young in the Middle East.

In the folk consciousness, the myth appears to be that a cruel witch really did land in this Happy Island and lay waste to it, without any prompting whatsoever. By this reading, her intentions were utterly malign and everything she did was the spontaneous production of an evil genius. Like The Terminator or a Macchiavellian creature from Dr Who, she materialised on this planet with the sole intention of wreaking destruction, a bizarre anomaly abominating against Nature.

The vilification heaped on her from these quarters undermines the case against Thatcher. Half truth and misinformation from a generation programmed to resentment by university lecturers and resentful parents – that you can expect as part of the knockabout. It is less comical when the national newspapers also fall prey to the same instinct. Yet they do. Thus we have Owen Jones in The Independent telling us:

“We are in the midst of the third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three have taken place since Thatcherism launched its great crusade.”

Seemingly having forgotten that in 1976 the Labour Government had to go cap-in-hand to the IMF to seek a bailout of billions to prevent the UK from sliding into bankruptcy, Jones imagines Thatcher as a crusader who laid waste to communities that were previously filled with “secure, skilled industrial jobs”.

Partially true, in that we did have skilled workers whose jobs had been secured for years by unsustainable State subsidy, it appears that Jones falls prey to the psychological effect of nostalgia when he imagines Britain prior to his birth in 1984.

Thus from Jones we imagine Paradisia Britannica in which there was no class system (“Britain was one of the most equal Western European countries before the Thatcherite project began”) – and bizarrely no racism existed. Yes, read that last one again. Apparently  Margaret Thatcher invented racism, because here’s what he says  happened under her right-to-buy scheme:

“The scarcity of housing turns communities against each other, as immigrants or anyone deemed less deserving are scapegoated.”

Britain was a big multi-cultural love-in before “Thatch”, it seems. Perhaps the National Front,  in Jones’s world, came into being under Thatcher’s leadership, even though The Battle of Lewisham which marked the start of the neo-Nazi organisation’s decline occurred 2 years before “Thatch” came to power. Jones, it appears, is a good rhetorician, but a terrible historian.

Let me just give a few fleeting impressions of the Britain that elected Thatcher to power.

In 1976, the Labour Government upon receiving their bailout from the IMF were given a series of conditions they had to meet in order to stave off bankruptcy. Sound familiar? In Britain many of us snide quite happily about Greece and Cyprus, while forgetting we were in an analogous situation only 37 years ago.

Wilson and then Callaghan tried desperately to reduce the size of the State. But the unions, who paid for the Labour Party through their membership subscriptions, weren’t having any of it. As soon as cuts were attempted, public service workers went on strike. We had a Government that was impotent in the face of the union power that was inexorably driving the country towards destruction. “We’re all in this together” might equally have been the cry back then. And what we appeared to be in was a sinking ship that the entrepreneurs and innovators, the powerhouses of wealth creation and the creatives had all abandoned to escape the 98% upper tax band.

The streets during the Winter of Discontent really were piled with rubbish, as rats gorged themselves in the streets on the detritus the unions refused to take away. I’ve heard of “refuse collection” but I never thought that was what it meant. To the massive distress of relatives, bodies went unburied because council workers wouldn’t dig graves – another inability to deal with yet more discards, it seemed, as a mythological sense of horror and helplessness built up around those times in the folk consciousness.

Not a myth, but a truth, I remember back at home my mum sitting at the table week after week going though her shopping bill. She used to weep at the prices going up. I can remember her saying to the ceiling with tears in her eyes: “That’s butter gone up another ha’penny. That’s 2 pence this month.” At its peak, inflation in the UK was running at 24.2%, a figure that seems difficult to imagine in the post-Thatcher era, because her number one priority was to stabilise inflation and keep the value in the pound.

Into this scenario steps Thatcher. In the ensuing years she did some terrible things and she did some things that would transform this country into a modern economy. She deliberately set about breaking the power of the unions, yes. But when the unions won’t even let you bury your dead granny, then there is a mythology at play here other than “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead”.

And that’s the point that I’m making. Thatcher wasn’t Wonder Woman fighting evil union power, just as she wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West murdering the Munchkins, either. For some reason, we are all prone (myself included, as can be seen above) to fall into half-conscious mythological constructs when we consider this extraordinary figure of female power. Perhaps it’s because we find it difficult to accept and understand her on her own terms. A powerful woman who knew her own mind. Fancy that? Much easier to call her “witch” or “goddess”.

What Thatcher did was neither all good nor or all bad. In fact those terms simply distort her and her legacy. What she was was a product of the most extraordinary times. Britain had been told quite clearly by our IMF backers that the country could not go on spending money it didn’t have. After the failings of Wilson and Callaghan, what she brought to the political scene was strict, rigid fiscal discipline. She was the housewife and dominatrix combined (see how easy the archetypes are to reference?). She looked long and hard at what was costing this country money and failing to give us influence in the world – and got rid of it.

It’s hard. It’s cold. It caused real pain and real hardship. It changed Britain forever, displacing families and destroying industry. It also freed people to think innovatively because it broke the union stranglehold on businesses, destroyed the closed shop and ended wildcat strikes.

To mythologise her and imagine her as the “dark shadow rising in the land of Mordor” is to maintain a child-like sense of good and evil that serves no purpose but to breed more ignorance and more stupidity, just as “Superthatch” is a nonsense, too.  Yet it is easy to do with her because she was such an extraordinary woman who caused such strong feelings.  In the minds of many who were her contemporaries, the emotion resonates. What chance for those born after her, who never experienced the awfulness of the years before she came to power?

With Thatch the psyche is activated. Well-established archetypes buried deep in our brains prevail.

Fairytales, after all, are so much more compelling than history.

Against Lazy Atheism – By An Atheist.

After today’s Press Release by Professor Richard Dawkins releasing the results of a survey purportedly showing that there is only a tiny proportion of the UK that are really Christian, an atheist reacts.

I’ve got a bit of a rant today. And it’s probably not going to go where you expect it to.  It’s in response to Richard Dawkins’ latest shenanigan which is his continual attempt to devalue and denigrate important subjective experiences which for many give their lives meaning, fulfillment and happiness.  Those experiences can be summed up as religious ones, which it is clearly Dawkins’s aim to eradicate.  Like O’Brien, the Thought Police Officer in Orwell’s 1984, Dawkins bangs on relentlessly about it, generating ill-will, disharmony and acrimony wherever he goes.

Dawkins’s latest trick has been to do a survey which, though he is not claiming it himself, many will misuse to ride rough-shod over the beliefs that many hold important, by claiming that “the majority are not religious”.  As if weight of public opinion ever changed a convert.

Before I go on, let’s make it plain, I am an atheist. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s atheists who just don’t have a clue why they’re atheists.

Here’s a classic I heard a few days ago from an otherwise not unintelligent woman:

“They should ban religion.  Religion is the cause of all the warfare and strife and trouble in the world.”

Oh really?

If you are one of the people who believes that, think about what you’re saying, and consider the following:

1) Do you really believe that before there was religion, everyone was soft and fluffy and nice to each other, in some kind of mythical past?  Do you really?  What are you telling me? That  it was some kind of EDEN or something, before religion?

2) Although religion has had a grip on people’s imaginations for millennia, the 20th Century saw mass movements that had nothing to do with religion.  Now let’s have a look through history at what those secular mass-movements achieved.

Let’s do so by asking a simple question: Who was the biggest mass murderer of all time?

Was it the religious Osama Bin Laden?  I sincerely doubt it.

Was it Adolf Hitler, with his weird belief in National Socialism that twisted some Christian ideas and turned them into a rationale for killing 6 millions Jews, Gipsies and Homosexuals, among others – allegedly on a purely scientific basis?

Nope, not Adolf.

How about Stalin?  Well, with Stalin we’re getting somewhere. His purges caused the deaths of an estimated 15-30 million people. Wow! Look at all those deaths! That’s quite impressive for someone who had a belief system that had nothing to do with “the cause of all the trouble in the world.”

But hey, let’s not stop there.  Let’s look at Mao Tse Tung.  His rule, with its starvation, mass suicides and political persecution is estimated to have caused the deaths of 40-70 million people.

Not bad going for someone who was an atheist, huh?

So what were you saying about religion being the cause of all the trouble in the world?

3) Is it possible that people in the West have forgotten one of the reasons religion was invented? It can be quite cogently argued that big moral rules were designed to make psychopaths quake in their boots at the possibility that even they might be answerable to someone.

In this model, morals, a belief in an afterlife in which you will be punished or rewarded, were designed to try, however unsuccessfully, to control the savage at the centre of so many human beings.

Logically speaking, and looked at in the abstract, the fact that it has failed time and time again is not a sign that God does not exist nor that religion is wrong.  It is a sign that despite religious people’s best attempts, bad people do bad things in the name of whatever comes to hand. That is, their psychopathology finds a way to use religious belief for its own ends.

Which explains a lot about pervy vicars and warmongering imams.

And before you say – well that’s just an Original Sin argument – no – it’s not.  I told you: I’m an atheist.

4) One final point.  If, as you say, “religion is the cause of every bad thing that people do in the world”, are you seriously telling me that every time a football hooligan stabs a fan of another team, every time a skinhead knifes a black person and every time a burglar breaks into a house and beats the living daylights out of a pensioner, they’re doing it in the name of God?  Do you think they pray afterwards, reporting back to the boss man in the sky about how well they’ve done?  Do you?!

Fellow atheists: get your facts straight and stop being so lazy in your thinking.  If you’re going to not believe in God, don’t  just martial the incidentals of history to assert that God doesn’t exist.

You can debate whether the things done in the name of religion are good or bad till you are blue in the face – because doing that does not prove one way or the other a single thing about God’s existence or otherwise.  That’s like arguing that because people get killed in cars, cars are inherently evil. It’s just muddled thinking.

I am tired of Lazy Atheists.  To me, there is only one thing as stupid as believing in God because you are told a line, or you see something useful in it.  It’s not believing in God because you have swallowed a line and see something useless in it.

Lazy Atheists, prejudice is not proof in the same way that faith does not prove existence.

Finally, if you can’t find a well-thought-out argument that really works – then remember – every time you open your mouth and wheel out these ill-formed prejudices, it’s YOU who’s causing the strife, trouble, intolerance and grief in the world you’re so happy to accuse the other side of fostering.

Remember: knee-jerk anger and intolerance will turn you into the person you hate. Religious, or not.

Not A Chance – for the e-riots

Something of a different format today.  With all the looting kicking off in London, I decided to make a quick recording of this song of mine.  It’s called “Chance”.  We are seeing in Britain the first e-riots – the riots in “civilized” countries that are orchestrated by Blackberry and Twitter.  Interesting to note that e-riots is an anagram of Tories…


Chance – by Matt Wingett – (recorded on a cheap field recorder.)

The lyrics are:

In the old town the young men are shrugging their shoulders

Looks like they’ve killed another kid won’t make it to another year older

And they’re dragging the canal looking for the passing of angels

But they don’t stand a chance coz angels don’t leave prints where they walk

And the kids gathered round to throw stones

Are laughing at the uniforms

Waiting for a shot in the air

Like they’ve been waiting all along…

Well, down the shopping mall, the kids have kicked in another window

That spoke the buying sensation, only high they’ll ever know

And over-the-counter-culture the old rebel’s cash till rings

Filled with the forged notes of the songs he don’t believe but still sings

And the kids’ faces pressed to the glass

Of the stores are politely ignored

That old come-on: “Not till you’re like us

Will we allow you to climb on board.”

And: “Everybody’s equal in the eyes of the dollar”

Is the cry of the businessman

“But if you are not buying, then you are worth nothing to me, and for you I couldn’t give a damn.

And I will not respect you, until you have learned the lesson taken from the First Book of Finance

The parable I’m preaching’s called the Yardstick of Possession, says the worthless don’t deserve a chance

Not a chance, not a chance…”

Well, there’s an opening party on the new side of town

Where they built the shopping complex, everyone’s come down

But the kids who kicked the windows, well they’ve all been locked out

They couldn’t raise the cash… instead they raise the shout:

“If we can’t buy our self respect, we’ll steal it from you instead

And though you may try to deny, some of the blame’s gonna fall on your head…”

Coz… etc

A Special Relationship? Yes and No.

“Darling, I think you’re special.  Special… like in Special Needs.”

I’ve said it myself when I’m feeling mischievous – and for anyone like me who’s got just a little bit tired of hearing all about the weird love-in that is going on between PM Cameron and the leader of the free world at the moment, it’s worth remembering that little spin that you can put on the word “special”.

Having just got back from the States to attend a friend’s wedding, the weird double-edged sword that is the relationship between Britain and America is right now as prominent in the Press as the Willis Tower is prominent in the middle of Chicago.  If you haven’t heard of the Willis Tower, by the way, try its old name: the Sears Tower.  Sound more familiar?  It’s just that it’s now named after the London-based company Willis Holdings Group.  And there’s the thing: Britain is America’s largest single investor, and America is Britain’s largest single investor.  The US and Britain are stuck with each other for some time to come, that’s for sure – so making that relationship work is absolutely vital for both of us.

But the “special” relationship is a strange one.  As a friend I spoke to in the US told me, the Brits aren’t entirely sure of what they think of the US.  “It’s not even right to call the relationship complicated.  It is,” she told me, “downright schizophrenic.”

Looking at it from my perspective, she’s right.

Growing up in Britain the 1970s, the son of a Naval officer, I didn’t quite know how to respond to the idea of America.

One day, my father took me to the Captain’s House at the shorebase, HMS Mercury, and stood me in front of a portrait of Lord Nelson.

“This man,” he told me, “changed history and allowed Britain to become the world’s most powerful nation.”

While for 150 years or so that had been true, by the time he told me this it was old news.  It overlooked 35 years of US global dominance.  Tales of a lost empire are a great way to set up a pointless rivalry – and I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation to have heard them.

What did I know of America?  I loved the Superman comics I bought from the newsagent down the road starring a musclebound oaf flying around in a cape and lifting up whole planets.  At the same time I hated the American belief, manifested in countless Westerns, that might is right and that arguments could be settled down the barrel of a gun.

I loved the crazy antics of American rock stars like Jimi Hendrix with his free expression and creativity, at the same time that I hated the moment American kids opened their mouths to speak on tv shows.

Always, always, always in growing up with America I experienced that double edge – that “yes” and “no” both at the same time.

On my short trip to the States this time around, I was struck by the differences in nuance – the tiny things, that make our countries so very, very different.

Meeting a US police Sheriff I was impressed by his complete and utter charm, by his deep sense of humour and by his courtesy and manners.  Reading his facebook posts later I was surprised to find that he held what I and my friends would consider strong right wing political views – supporting the excesses of Israeli oppression of non-Jewish people, placing God at the middle of considerations about how to vote, and declaring that most homeless people don’t want to be bought food, but would prefer to spend their money on drugs.

These are opinions straight out of our worst right wing, intolerant newspapers, but in the US I think they are pretty mainstream.  And despite this, I liked this guy…  It was another “yes” and “no” moment.  I want to learn more about him, and drink a beer with him, while knowing that there are things we will never agree on…

That ambivalence is true, too, in the so-called “special relationship”.  My friend told me that while she was an exchange student in the UK, she had been shocked to be confronted by young Brits challenging her about her Americanness.

I suppose you think you came here and saved us, don’t you? – was one question she was repeatedly asked by angry Brits while she was a student in the UK.  If ever there was a sign of a “Special Relationship”, then American action in World War 2 would be pretty much at the top of the list of what the Americans might point to as an example of it.  Yet, the hostility aimed towards her was palpable.

The truth is, we Brits hate to be reminded that we couldn’t have made it alone, which is something we really need to get over.  And hearing an accent is enough to remind us, it seems!

There is no doubt that without Uncle Sam’s massive industrial might, without the sacrifice of American lives on European and Asian soil, the whole world would have fallen under a shadow of fascism almost unimaginable.  There is no doubt that American Industrial and Military sectors made a major contribution to saving the world, as US soldiers fought alongside their Allies from the British Empire, the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Yet at the same time, for the Brits it was a mixed victory.  Although during the War the US had offered Britain its resources through the Lend-Lease scheme, meaning that we could use what we needed when we needed it for the duration – at the end of the War there was an invoice to be paid.

A bankrupted British Empire lay in tatters, while we borrowed a million dollars a day from the US to buy grain to stop the Germans from starving to death.  At the same time, the military heavy machinery and supplies that we had borrowed from the US for the duration of the War either had to be returned or paid for.  Even at the massive discount the US gave us (90%), our War Debt was only finally paid off in 2006.  During the course of the War, we had bargained away our patent on the jet engine to the US, numerous other inventions, as well as an array of military bases throughout the world.  These negotiations were to stand the US in good stead to project its massive military and trading presence throughout the world in the Post-War years.  Throughout the war, America was preparing to make the most of the peace.

When peace finally came and Britain asked the US to honour the agreement that it share its nuclear secrets with us, after we had supplied some of our greatest brains to build the first atom bomb in the Manhattan Project, we were given a straight “no”.  And when we decided to build our own nuclear power station at Calder Hall to start our own nuclear military project, the Americans genuinely drew up plans to invade Britain and destroy the facility – a plan that thankfully was never acted upon.

Meanwhile, the American policy of weakening and collapsing the British Empire remained active.  After all, while in the first half of the 20th Century there had been an arms race between Britain the US and Japan, the US alone owned the peace of the latter half of  the 20th Century.  When the old imperial powers decided to flex their muscles in Egypt, in a combined operation between France, Britain and Israel, to drive Nasser out of the Suez Canal, America pulled the plug on the operation.  It was a humiliating defeat that contributed to the further collapse of Britain’s crumbling credibility as a military power.

This, at least, is the way that the post-War years are sometimes presented from a British perspective, and it is part of this world view that informed some of the hostility that my friend from Chicago encountered whilst in the UK.  Spotty kids don’t know much, but what they do know, they know with absolute ferocity, after all.  And they knew they didn’t like Americans, although they couldn’t put their finger on why.

And so the story of the “special” relationship between Britain and America goes on.  At times of difficulty, Britain and America work together.  At times of peace, we are often rivals.  We adore American pop culture – but there is enough of it that we are bound to hate it, too. We admire American science – but sulkily bemoan the loss of our great brains to the States.

We often bemoan the dumbing down of British culture by American culture – while ignoring the fact that the phrase “dumbing down” is a symptom of American English entering British English vocabulary.  It’s a strange, complex, mix.  As my friend in the US said: “It’s schizophrenic.”

For her, the thing that I did find shocking is that the hostility she experienced came from a generation long past being post-Imperial: she was at University over here a good 25 years after my father had told me of Lord Nelson.  Old stories fade slowly, it seems.

And here’s the irony at the heart of it all.  The “Special Relationship” we Brits cling to like a neurotic girlfriend is a throwback to a time when we felt far more important.  It reassures us of our place in the world, while simultaneously reminding us of just how much the world has changed.

Part of the pointless resentment of young, uninformed Brits toward the US comes from exactly this: that 70 years ago, Britain as an Imperial power was Top Dog.

Many Brits just can’t quite swallow that it was both saved and superceded by that upstart nation – the Home of the Hot Dog.

English? Yes… But Not Patient Enough…

I’ve just watched one of the least enjoyable movies I have ever had the displeasure of enduring, and it’s not what you might consider a “usual suspect” for such a distinguished honour…

It was as much a surprise to me that The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas was the culprit as it would have been if I had spotted a crashed biplane on the surface of the moon.

It’s funny, because it really did take years for me to get to this movie. Every time I saw it lurking in the DVD drawer, or scheduled on the box, something in me recoiled.  But I eventually decided I would have to succumb to its call.  Anthony Minghella was, after all, from the Isle of Wight.  I have eaten his family’s overpriced ice cream and sworn at the ice cream sellers who rip you off on Southsea beach, just across the water from “his” island.  We have things in common.  So watching it would be showing solidarity with a local boy, right?

Oh!  That I had left it out of the player!

So, what exactly is wrong with The English Patient? (- Apart from being hideously burned and looking like a mummy, obviously.)  That was the question I began to ask myself when I got about an hour in and found my attention wandering despite efforts to shepherd it back.  I had the feeling I used to get when reading worthy books that were supposed to be masterpieces, yet plodded on towards the most predictable of endings.  This movie was the filmic equivalent of something by Chekhov or Hardy: ploddingly dull.

Now, there’s no doubt The English Patient is beautifully filmed, although, somehow, not beautifully enough – despite all of the soft shadows on fleshy sands, implying the curves of a woman’s body.  It has pretty people in it, although they might have been either more real or more pretty.  And the costumes look authentic, down to the German uniforms, and the leather flying jackets, the white cotton dress.  The scenes set in Khan Al Khalili look real and sumptuous; the desert looks exotic – mostly.  Everything is visually engaging in a 1970s Turkish Delight tv advert sort of a way.  So that’s not where the problem lies.

Nope, the thing that did it for me was that I actually didn’t care one tiny little bit for any of the weird characters, who wandered about the desert having their affairs.  Not one of them aroused in me the slightest feeling of sympathy, whatsoever.  From the autistically deadpan Ralph Fiennes with that strange face he has that looks like it has the texture, flexibility and expressiveness of a crusty bloomer baked in the desert sun, via Colin Firth who comes across as neither hearty nor dull, through to the cold and emotionless Kristin Scott Thomas, nearly nothing engaged my sympathy.  Experiencing a series of emotionless faces on a sandy background simply left me wondering if this is what the English really were like before the War.  If it were the case, I decided to thank the next German I met for starting something that at least collapsed a culture that was so horrendously repressed that it didn’t once know how to throw its posture off the symmetrical, or put a glimmer in its eye.  I might as well have been on Tattooine, so alien were these Sandpeople.

Which of course, left the love affair that was to determine the fates of thousands to be a completely incomprehensible nonsense.  Why did Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katherine not recognise the weirdly distant Count Laszlo as a stalker?  Why did she cheat on her perfectly serviceable husband who had it all: money, looks, kindness and an aeroplane?  There’s no explanation.  I charge the film makers with deception.  And Exhibit A, your honour, is Breadface’s pulling technique.  Ready for this?

He stares at her a bit.

Yes, that’s it.  That’s what brings the erudite, brilliant, funny but cold Katherine to the conjunctive bath tub.  One would think that with so much going on in her head, it might take more than staring at her a bit to cause her to open her legs to him.

But apparently staring at her a bit really is enough.  As is talking in a dull monotone.  And not letting anyone know what you’re thinking.  Useful tips, which I am sure I have tried to less than erotic effect.  That Katherine woman is a singular individual, that’s for sure!  If only all socially inadequate stuffed shirts could meet someone like her!  I’m sure I’ve read of people in the modern age who’ve tried that staring thing, and they either got arrested, beaten up, or had a restraining order put on them.

And here is the problem with the movie: everything that follows from him staring at her a bit seems as nonsensical as his staring at her a bit does.  For another hour, a parade of faces looking disengaged and dull goes by, and I find myself looking once again for how much more of this I will have to endure.  At the end of two hours, I start talking to the living room saying: “Please, oh movie, just surprise me.”  By now Katherine has been abandoned by Laszlo in a cave as he looks for a doctor.  But we all know they’re going to die.  And the fact that he sacrifices most of Northern Egypt to the Germans for the sake of recovering her corpse does not seem such a romantic gesture. It just seems as inexplicable as the rest of Breadface’s behaviour throughout.

True, on the other side, Juliet Binoche does save the scenes set in a monastery where she has holed up with Laszlo, and she does have a fleeting romance with a Sikh Bomb Disposal Officer, which adds a medium amount of spice to the proceedings.  They talk a bit about Imperial attitudes, and then he talks to Laszlo about how much he dislikes Kipling.  But hey, big deal. Binoche’s caring, kind face that actually displays emotions is not enough to engage the attention, because a narrative would also be useful at this point.  This very point clearly perplexed Ondaatje and Minghella, who introduced to the plot the thumbless “Moose” Caravaggio.  But all he does is go around being a bit sinister in a half-hearted kind of a way and muttering about past lives and revenge, and that is meant to produce the narrative tension the film is lacking.

Once again it’s not enough.  There is no narrative tension.  Everyone lives these internalised, introspective lives, and then they die.  Of course, it was always going to end unhappily, as we knew it would from the opening scene.  Besides, we all know how the love triangle must end in this sort of a movie.  It all seems very French, what with all that predictable misery that comes from Breadface and the Ice Queen getting it together.  I wondered whether Binoche had been included because it might fire off a few cultural buttons about the Gallic obsession with doomed love affairs.  A kind of shortcut to class.

And that’s the end of the movie.  The Breadman becomes Toastman, the Ice Queen melts away in the cave of the swimmers, the Moose ends up getting married unexpectedly, and the Frenchwoman is left to seek her Sikh in a Christian church in an Italian town.

All very picturesque, but missing the passion, missing the feeling – and missing a cast of human beings that actually walk, talk and emote like human beings…

Perhaps a biplane really did crashland on the moon.  I just wish that someone had told me before I watched it that all the characters were meant to be aliens.

Arts and Their Impact on Human Relations – by Maha Moussa

I have a guest writer on the blog today.  I first met Maha Moussa 10 years ago while I was working for the British Council in Cairo.  Maha was interested in learning English, and was a wonderful hostess to me, taking me around the markets and secret places of Cairo, walking along the Corniche, teaching me about Egyptian food and taking me to cultural events, including Sufi dancing.  It was a wonderful time.

When I moved back to the UK, we lost touch, until one day she popped up on facebook and said “hello”.  Maha has lately been studying English again, and she sent me an essay that she wrote for her teacher.  I was impressed by it, not just because of the competency of the English, but because Maha engages with her subject with a great deal of honesty, joy and optimism.  It is the second essay she has written on the course.  Before now, Maha was all self-taught – writing to friends in the West, and meeting Westerners in the markets.  I think it is impressive for that feat alone – but above and beyond that, she raises some really wholesome points and some great, uplifting descriptions.  It is very different from the way that I write – and I hope you enjoy the change!

Arts and Their Impact on Human Relations – by Maha Moussa

Music, Singing, Dancing, Drawing, Poetry, Movies, and Plays, each of them is an important aspect of the culture of different countries and their civilizations. As such, they help us to form our ideas of life with many different perspectives.

Maha Moussa - A Friend From Cairo
Maha Moussa - A Friend From Cairo

There is no need to learn to be an artist, or even to study The Arts in order to feel the beauty which we see in the painting of the great works of Leonardo Da Vinci, or in the painting of an unknown person who lives in a slum area in India, for example.  Napoleon Bonaparte said: “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and yes, this is true . There is also no need to speak several languages to be able to enjoy the wonderful music and songs that we listen to in different languages. All we need is to learn how to feel, to see, and to listen to these inspiring arts, by using our senses, our hearts, our minds and our consciousnesses.  We can follow our desires to become acquainted with other people’s cultures and deal with them on a human level through their arts. That is all that we need to appreciate art.

One of the most famous quotes by Victor Hugo is: “Change your opinion, keep to your principles, change your leaves, keep intact your roots”. Thus, to be proud of our roots, our civilization, and our culture’s artistic heritage is something truly good and healthy. This sense of pride should help us to have a deep sense of understanding and respect for the cultures and arts of other countries, too. It gives us a wonderful chance to know more about the arts that contribute in some way to shaping the hearts and minds of other people, and affects our ways of dealing with each other in life. The fact is that, the global exchange of arts between countries, such as music, singing, dancing, drawing etc., provides opportunities for humanity to open the door of knowledge, to help people to add richness to their values, their dreams, and their ambitions to create a smooth path to communicate with other wonderful people around the world, and accept their differences.  In this way, we learn to accommodate others in a way that is less severe or intolerant, regardless of their beliefs, their customs, their religions, their nationalities, or even their lifestyle. This shared gateway frees us to meet each other naturally and respectfully with more flexibility, respect, and tolerance.

Someone once said about music: “Music expresses feeling and thoughts without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” So, if anyone has the opportunity to watch or to listen to any of the various music performances that come to Egypt from different countries such as: Korea, America, Zambia, France, Ireland, Pakistan, or India, etc., I think that the most useful way to be able to enjoy and feel this music is to let your soul go free and clear your mind, as if you are traveling to those wonderful countries and attending these performances by yourself. This is my advice from personal experience.

A few months ago, in the last Month of Ramadan, I was attending one of the greatest and most talented performances that I have ever seen in my life, along with one of my foreign friends, who was working in Cairo at the time. This wonderful show was one of religious music. It was the international annual festival of “Samaa for sufi music and chanting“.  It was a new cultural event that started 2 years ago. It is held annually during Ramadan, in one of Cairo’s oldest and most iconic Islamic buildings, El Ghoury Dome, or Qobat Al-Ghoury. The event I attended this year at the festival had bands from many countries, such as: India, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, while the core band had members from Egypt, Indonesia, and Akabila. This wonderful performance was a mixture of Islamic religious chanting, Coptic hymns, and Opera songs, at the same time. All of these bands were glorifying God, and His messengers Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but with many languages and in various musical styles. They provided to the world through their music ”a message of peace“, to explain that God created us equal. Regardless of the religions or the beliefs we follow, we all are humans. When my friend and I were listening to them, we felt as if the amazing music and sounds came to us from heaven. All we could do was just enjoy the Islamic Sufi chanting and the Coptic Hymns and we felt that there was no difference between them. When the whole group said the same words together, such as; Allah, God, Mohammed, and Jesus, we became surprised at how they felt the pleasure and the power of their words, and how they transferred that feeling to us, even with our inability to understand most of the languages in which they were performed. We had no choice but to respond to their music and their songs.  Really we felt as if we had already traveled to each country.

In my opinion, there is no specific way to enjoy the different kinds of arts; every person has the absolute freedom to see, to listen, and to taste the art in the manner that suits him or her. Art and freedom are two sides of one coin. Thus, our freedom creates a sense of love, care, tolerance, and respect between peoples. So let us know and learn more about each other from our arts and our cultures. They translate many great and deep meanings in life into one common language we can all understand. Art provides us with convincing answers to many questions that we have in our minds about others, and the answer always is this: that we are all human, just human.

Hypnosis: It’s All Bollocks

I heard the sentiment a couple of days ago, from someone who should have known better, and I answered clearly enough: “Yes. You’re right. What you’ve got in your head that you’ve decided is hypnosis… THAT is complete and utter bollocks.  But then, I wouldn’t expect any more of you than that.”

Swirly Bollocks

So my rapport-building skills were not at their best on that day. But really, I have heard this sentiment repeated so often in different ways, from so many different people, who really should know better than to talk about something of which they have no knowledge and no experience.

Common objections to hypnosis come in at least three broad forms. Firstly, there’s the all-encompassing: “There’s no empirical evidence for it” argument, that I had with a pharmacist a little while ago.

No empirical evidence..? Oh, okay. So a woman comes into my office, having had a lifetime of bird phobia, having seen counsellors, undergone CBT, desensitisation and seen various psychiatrists that never touched the problem – and then, coincidentally in the time that she was sitting in my room, while I was coincidentally talking about ending her phobia, she coincidentally stopped having it. No empirical evidence? The assertion isn’t only unintelligible. It’s moronic.

Having established his profession with him, I thought it best to simply reply to him on his own level: “What scientific papers have you read on outcomes using an empirically-based methodology involving hypnosis?” He shrugged and mumbled something, and so I followed up: “Because, if you haven’t done the research, then don’t start the discussion. Otherwise it’s prejudice.”

Then there is the: “We all know it’s stage trickery” argument. Which would be a half useful argument if I was a stage hypnotist getting people to French-kiss mops. In that case, you use whatever you can to establish compliance. But I’m not a stage hypnotist. Telling me that someone who has come in to see me because they were terrified of birds for 60 years and who walked away 2 hours later able to feed the ducks on the local pond is the subject of a trick is simply incoherent.

“Oh, right. Okay. Someone just paid me a fee to get me to trick them into thinking they were no longer afraid of birds.” Who is being tricked, here?  The client feeding the birds? Onlookers? The birds? I mean, what are you saying? Think a moment, will you?

The “trick” argument is bloody rude, too. Here’s a question I asked of someone who tried it on me:

“You do realise that you are calling me one of two things when you say it’s all bollocks, don’t you? Either I’m deluded about the changes that go on before my very eyes – or I’m a conman. Just so we can get things clear between us, which is it that you think I am? – A madman or a liar?”

Then there is the “lack of theory” argument. This one utterly makes me howl.  “There’s no theoretical model for the effectiveness of hypnosis. Therefore it can’t work.”

This assertion is also close to being unintelligible, and yet I’ve heard it time and again from so-called “scientists”. They are no such thing. They are sheep in white lab coats. Just because someone doesn’t understand something, it doesn’t make it untrue. Edison invented the electric light bulb in 1878. Lorentz published his first paper on the theory of the electron in 1892.  If we followed the argument that because we don’t understand it, it doesn’t exist, Edison would have had to drum his fingers for 14 years before filing his patent. It’s a nonsense.

As for me, I’m just waiting for the lightbulb moment to happen in hypnosis. Until then, I’m expecting to hear a lot more “bollocks”. But while a lot of bollocks is spoken around me, I’m also expecting to help a lot more people out of a hole, too

And in the end, that’s what really counts.