Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dunblane: Our Story

I wasn't there. I have never been to Dunblane and my links to the town are tenuous - my husband has cousins who once lived there. And they didn't live there then. So really I have no right to write about Dunblane. But this documentary on BBC2 on Wednesday night was so restrained and calm and yet so unbearably moving that I instantly felt compelled to put pen to paper. The dignity of the survivors was overwhelming. There was no anger or bitterness, but there was a profound, never-ending sadness. There were lost dreams and shattered lives. Baby sisters grew up never knowing their older sibling. Widowed partners lost their only child. A daughter lost a mother; a mother who died trying to protect pupils in her care. A headmaster walked into a stinking, smoke-choked room of massacred children. The world was just too cruel that day.

But somehow the survivors did survive, a small triumph of love and hope over the evil that came to the town of Dunblane on March 13th 1996. We all know about the world-famous tennis player that had a miraculous near miss. These were some of the others, who had until now been silent. Some were lucky, some desperately unlucky, but all of them were changed forever. It's a credit to the school headmaster that he was able to carry on after what he had witnessed, and bring the school and the community together. He helped the townspeople fend off the fierce media spotlight by acting as their spokesman, so that normal life, somehow, could resume. The school was back open after nine days. The children needed somewhere to go, and something to focus on. It was the right decision.

But the school has a new gym now. There are some places you cannot return.

I wasn't there, but Dunblane is one of those events that you always remember where you were when you heard about it. I was in my second year at university, and came into our kitchen to find my housemate Mark in tears. He was watching the one o'clock news on our crappy black and white television, which perched on the microwave with a coathanger for an aerial and only intermittent signal. But the news itself was clear: we were bearing witness to the aftermath of one of the worst mass murders ever to happen on British soil. (What I didn't realise until I saw this documentary is that the world was told what had happened before some of the children's parents, who were kept waiting in a house next to the school.)

It was utterly unfathomable. 20 years on, it's still hard to take in. Now I have a five year old daughter, exactly the same age as the children who were killed that day. So it hits home even harder to contemplate what happened. That a man, a local oddball youth leader known to police, could drive into the grounds of my daughter's school unnoticed, enter the building carrying four handguns and 700 rounds of ammunition, find the school hall and fire 105 bullets into her PE lesson, killing her, her teacher and 15 of her classmates, doesn't bear thinking about. It's too shocking and terrifying for words. And yet that is what happened in Dunblane.

We may bemoan the extreme security measures schools have in place these days. The high-perimeter fences, electronic gates and buzzer systems, the grilling from the office staff as they hand over the signing in and out books, the CCTV, the obsession with safeguarding in Ofsted reports. But we should only be thankful, if it means that no Thomas Hamilton can ever be allowed to wander off the street into a school again.

No school could possibly have expected something quite so horrendous to happen, especially not in a small community like Dunblane, where everybody knew each other. But security had definitely taken a back seat until then. For example, kids broke into my primary school one night in 1984 and burned it down. The gate was easily vaulted over, and nobody saw them go in. But thankfully, no one was hurt, and all I lost was a geography project. Nothing, in the grand scheme of things. During the school day, the gates were open to all and sundry, and anyone could walk right up to the outside of our classrooms. But only parents came in, bringing in forgotten packed lunches or dinner money. We had no reason not to keep our innocence. But at least when that innocence was lost, something was done. Although too late for the town of Dunblane.

The private ownership of handguns, despite opposition from the gun lobby, was banned in the UK in 1998. There have of course been horrific classroom murders since, and these are just as significant and awful, but none have involved guns. Which is more than you can say for the United States, where it seems like there is a mass shooting in a high school every other day. And often it's children touting the guns. Obama says it must stop, but apparently too many Republican senators disagree, because nothing is ever done.

As for Dunblane, what we will never know is - why. Rest in peace, you brave, beautiful, innocent, wonderful children.

"Snowdrops were out in profusion..." 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Night Manager

Mm, so sleek. Le Carre has been made all Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli - no more the real phlegm and soggy broccoli of the school dinner atmosphere of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There are diamonds, martinis, fast cars, expensive watches, and an opening titles sequence straight out of Shirley Bassey. In fact, I think Tom Hiddleston is probably using this as his casting reel to be the next 007, once he gets a little craggier. He's certainly got the charm for it. Although his charm had well and truly tipped over into psychopath territory by the middle of the second episode.

The Night Manager's M is a very pregnant Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, with an unidentifiable northern accent and no budget for central heating. (Here, in the cold, there is real phlegm.) I am not sure who she is working for. She seems to be half of a two-person team who occasionally have meetings at MI6 in Vauxhall or the Foreign Office in Whitehall, but otherwise are rogue roamers. Mrs Burr can fly to Zermatt in an instant, despite being in her third trimester, and is able to eavesdrop on conversations from Cairo to Mallorca.

There is no Q. Hiddleston, as Jonathan Pine, has to raid dustbins to retrieve Sim cards, and break into his own safe. But Pine's army training means he's a dab hand at breaking a man's arm, ejecting someone from a snooker room, or tying an electrical extension lead round their neck. But he'll also pour your champagne perfectly, seduce you Bond-style in a flash, relocate you to the back of rural beyond, and never seems to sleep.

The baddie is Hugh Laurie, who is charming too, but with a dash of snake poison just below the surface. He is Richard Roper, a wealthy philanthropist giving speeches in front of a Unicef flag while dealing arms to the evil warlords behind it. He is calm, affable, terribly reasonable - but the terrifying is unmistakably there. It will surface, and soon. For now, Pine is lying in Roper's Mallorcan villa with two black eyes and a broken nose. He is a mystery to them. Is he mussel man or muscle man? We're not sure how they are going to find out. They've done the Google side of things, unearthing his CV and Burr's false trail of identity for him. But they aren't yet convinced. I suspect there may be a waterboard in the wardrobe.

Tom Hollander, Roper's sidekick Corcoran, is more openly threatening. But even he is jolly nice about it. Affable Rev, laced with strychnine. "I will hood you and hang you up by those lovely ankles until the truth falls out of you by gravity. Toodleoo."

Maadi, Cairo

What a difference between the luxurious hotels where the Night Manager works and the places we have stayed. It must be because we aren't multi-billionaires or illegal arms dealers and don't tend to arrive places by luxury yacht or helicopter. Our abode in Maadi, Cairo wasn't grotty so much as basic. A skyscraper hotel of brown glass, with an empty swimming pool on the roof and slightly creaky plumbing. But it did have a view of the Pyramids, glimpsed across the Nile behind the minarets of the mosque next door. Loudspeakers perched on the minarets woke us daily at four with the morning call to prayer.

Empty rooftop pool

View of the Pyramids and River Nile

Or you could say that the Pyramids had a view of our hotel

Cairo seemed even busier and crazier than the chaotic Cairo in the midst of the Arab Spring depicted in The Night Manager. We didn't dare cross a road in our attempt to find somewhere for dinner. The traffic was lethal. We ate pizza in a restaurant down the street, surrounded by potted palms and men smoking hookah pipes.
More The Night Manager's style

And then the action moves to Switzerland. Not being a skier, the only time I have been to Zermatt, I was 15 and staying in a Eurocamp tent with my family somewhere near Susten. The train from Visp was more rickety than the streamlined red SBB models ridden by Pine, and for some reason I have in my head that it was powered by steam. Once there, the shops were full of tat, and my mum got locked in a public loo while my brother made up a jingle for Peugeot cars. Which he pronounced Pee-go. But I do remember the beautiful Matterhorn; a wisp of cloud clutching at its pinnacle that would never quite leave.

Zermatt tourist tat

My family munching at the Matterhorn

80s glamping in Susten

Only in Devon has our holiday accommodation looked similar. My parents had quite the knack for finding dodgy cottage rentals. No TripAdvisor then, you see. Farmhouses with bad carpets, stubborn chickens in the garden refusing to lay eggs, and Alan Wells winning the 100 metre gold at the Moscow Olympics on a fuzzy black and white television screen. Here it was my brother's turn to get locked in the toilet.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Back In Time For The Weekend

Mum and me at my dad's company sports day, 1974.
Dressed by Cloth-Kits, by the looks of things.

It's another series of flashbacks to my childhood. This time Giles Coren takes a family (the Ashby-Hawkins) back to the leisure activities of bygone decades. It's exactly the same format as Back In Time For Dinner, only with less food, and less likable kids. I'm finding them too posh and privileged and full of themselves, and too likely to take the piss out of their parents for the slightest misdemeanour. Typical teenagers, you might argue, but they're annoying.

The kids are from a generation that spend their lives staring at screens. They would rather sit at home and Skype their friends than go out and see them in the flesh.

But in the 1970s and 80s, they can't do that. So it's off to the park to climb on splintered wood and steel scaffolding screwed into concrete, before lacerating their hands on a zipwire. Never did us any harm. My brother, who split his head open in our local adventure playground when he ran into a concrete tube and forgot to duck, may disagree.
Never did us any harm

But we were left to roam, to ride our bikes around the streets and chase each other through the alleyways. Children can't do that any more. There are too many cars on the road. Too many perverts. (Though I am sure, as the Savile Report testifies, there were plenty of those in the 1970s too.) Nowadays, two thirds of kids have never been to the park on their own.

The family finds the 1970s fun. There are spirographs and slinkies, and selfies with the camera. (Except that selfies were not a "thing" when I was little.) There is a lot of dancing. There wasn't much dancing in our house. As a university lecturer once said to me, "Some of us listen to opera, some of us listen to Boney M." In our house, it was opera. No rollerdiscos for us.
Opera in the lounge

And it's fun despite the fact for a lot of the time, there's no electricity, no petrol and for the summer of 1976, no water either.
Me in my home-made 1976 desert

And it's fun despite the fact that the kids are left outside pubs, sat in the car with a packet of crisps. The car is a Renault 5, given to the family by Angela Rippon, the original presenter of Top Gear. Take that, Clarkson. She has so much more style than you.

The 70s sunlounger

And I had my own

But at least there was a summer, and snow in winter. We had a sun lounger just like the one in the Ashby Hawkins' garden. And my dad got to use it.(See above.) Because it was sunny. The family go on holiday - a camping trip in the great outdoors, which is a lot less fun in the 2015 weather. No pop-up tents - it takes Mum and Dad a good few hours to erect the poles, while the kids whine in the Renault 5. But there's much to tell their friends in a slideshow when they get home, a tradition which my parents maintained well into the 1990s.

Proper snow in winter, even Down South

The 70s is a decade when people start to buy rather than rent their home. (The Ashby-Hawkins talk the bank manager into lending them a £5,000 mortgage.) This begins a trend for DIY. (Do I really have a memory of my dad on the roof, wrestling with a central heating flue?) The Ashby Hawkins install a corkboard wall, so Eric Bristow can teach them to play darts. (There seems to have been a lot of retired darts players on television recently.)
Yes, I really do

There's home brew, and the arrival of a colour telly, which greatly improves the family's enjoyment of Pot Black. We had to make do with black and white until at least 1984. Which is how we got to know our new next-door neighbour in 1981, because he invited us round to watch Charles and Di get married in colour.

Rob actually saw Charles and Di get married in the flesh, so to speak, since he and his mother camped outside St Paul's Cathedral for five nights in July 1981. If you look carefully, you can see their tiny heads on the television footage, which Rob is now watching for the very first time, at a retro red white & blue (indoors) street party.

In the 1980s, the house turns into a cluttered jumble of chintz and technology. They stencil the walls and scent the lounge with pot pourri. Son Seth is excited by the technology - a home computer that has to be programmed every Basic line of the way. This means he no longer goes out into the garden to enjoy their Flymo manicured lawns and hedge-trimmer strimmed privet. (It's possibly safer that way. I have an uncle who lost a toe to a Flymo.)

I was dragged out into the garden to show off my Brownie uniform.
Brother with chair.

When Seth isn't on the computer, he's watching videos on the new VCR, which only he can work. He does at least have to go outside to rent the videos from the local Blockbuster. No online streaming here. But on the high street, the cinemas are closing down. As are the youth clubs, so prevalent in the 1970s. Kids are going to play video games in arcades instead.
Whereas we went to National Trust properties
The family have become spendaholics. There's a second car to the Vauxhall Cavalier - the Ford Fiesta. If Mrs Ashby Hawkins had had her way there'd be a Sinclair C5 on the drive as well. There's another telly in the kitchen, on the breakfast bar. From 1983, there's Breakfast TV to watch on it too. There's a phone they can walk around with (even if it's still on a wire) rather than having to stay sat on the stairs. There's a Walkman to jog with. There are British Gas shares to make them rich. (But there's Live Aid to make them feel guilty.) Everyone wants to be as American as Ronald Reagan, with Dallas shoulder pads, Miami Vice jackets, and a fear of nuclear Armageddon. The look is all highlights, perms and big glasses, with a touch of Madonna thrown in. And Nick Kamen boxer shorts and Levi 501s for the boys. It's the end of the Y front.

Who is paying for it all? Why Access, our flexible friend.

Daughter Daisy goes looking for a rave, but she definitely needs to work on her acid house moves. She wasn't much good at breakdancing either. Probably safer to stay home and tape the Top 40. Her mum, having finished her Jane Fonda workout, is out at a new "ladies friendly" wine bar. The dad seems content to be at home, (finally) doing a small share of the chores and indulging in a secret passion for 80s television. He rustles up some Del Boy style cocktails at a party to celebrate the end of the decade.

In the 1980s, work starts to intrude on family life. Not just because the mother is out at work to help pay for all their spending. It's mainly because we are now contactable 24/7, thanks to the rise of pager systems. Pagers will of course will turn into mobile phones, and then into mobile internet and wifi and remote logins for e-mail access - all of which mean that we will never truly be able to switch off from our jobs again, or have leisure time which is just about us, leaving the day-to-day grind behind.