Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Rillington Place and Back In Time To Brixton

Two programmes revealing Notting Hill's murky past. Now its plush white porticos house millionaire financiers, famous spin doctor politicians and massive basement conversions, but once, long before Hugh Grant set foot in its doors, it was such an impoverished, dingy and dismal place to live that it wasn't even remotely near the tip of the radar of "up and coming". It was wrecked, miserable, and racist.

And never more so as when Reg Christie and his wife Ethel moved down from Sheffield in the 1940s, to make a fresh start on their marriage after Reg had been AWOL for nine years, eventually turning up doing time for crimes unspecified. He claims Notting Hill is up and coming. But he's a big fat liar.

He's also a voyeur, a philanderer and a murderer. Strangely incongruous with the shuffling, mumbling, balding, bespectacled moper he appears to be. He is repressed with palpable tension, yet his morose, put-upon wife merely shrugs as she comes across yet another blood-stained mattress, or sees him digging a shallow grave next to a rosebush. It's so dark in the house thanks to the wartime black-out that it's hard to see or be sure of anything. There is an eerie atmosphere, threatening hallucination, uncertainty and death. Ethel gets cross if she finds Reg flirting with a prostitute or a lady visitor, but her anger soon collapses into terror when Reg finally lashes out, nearly strangling her over the kitchen sink. Ethel runs away to her brother's, but a niggling, pleading letter from Reg makes her return, only to find the coat of a missing woman hanging in the hall.

The story begins with a hanging too - and this man's story is still to be told. More next week.

The family in Back In Time to Brixton are later to arrive in Notting Hill, attending the carnival in 1999, the last year of their journey tracing the story of a typical Jamaican family in London arriving on the Windrush in 1948. Their first night in London is in even less desirable accommodation than Rillington Place (though at least it doesn't come with its own murderer) - an underground bunker near Clapham South tube station that had been used as an air raid shelter in the war. It's already equipped with rickety bunk beds and a bucket, which is all the authorities think people need. That and corned beef. Thankfully soon the family can move into a poky one-room bedsit, and then gradually work their way up through life and jobs in Brixton. But the struggles and attitudes the families faced in London, the xenophobia and mistrust, the outright abuse, make me wonder if Britain has learned nothing in the past sixty years. The tabloid headlines of the Sun in the sixties echo those of anti-migrant stance seen in the Mail and Express today. It's shocking, despicable and depressing.

The Irwins are as interesting and entertaining as the Robshaws last year, only a bit cooler, and definitely better dancers. The dad has even been on Gladiators. Brixton, like Notting Hill, has changed immeasurably since the arrival of the Windrush generation. At the far end of the Victoria Line, the tube station now blasts out classical music to keep the hooded teenage hoodlums away. It was a short bus ride from my house in Clapham, but I usually only ended up there to see a gig at the Academy (Belle and Sebastian, Starsailor, and James' great reformation in 2007) or a film at the Ritzy. I suppose I had my own prejudices: memories of the news footage of the riots in the 1980s, that the shops and bars were better (or at least more convenient) on my doorstep in Clapham, or that Brixton was just too busy.

And speaking of busy, 1999 was coincidentally the only year I went to the Notting Hill carnival. I had a lovely time eating jerk chicken and fried plantain at the street food stalls, listening to the steel bands, and cheering on the colourful floats and befeathered, whirling dancers. Such a fabulous, life-affirming, vibrant, energetic sight. Until I decided it was time to head home to Clapham and realised there was about a million people between me and the nearest open tube station; the entire million seemingly moving in the opposite direction to me. The crowds meant I never could face going back. But it was fun while it lasted.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Great Canal Journeys

Loch Eil and Loch Linnhe

Another series from the wonderful Timothy and Prunella. Floppy hats, lots of whisky and wine, and the following of dreams.

Two of the series were dedicated to crossing Scotland, with not a narrow boat in sight. The first episode travelled the length of the Caledonian Canal, seeking out Nessie along the way, and passing through the locks of Neptune's Staircase near Fort William before heading out to the open sea.
Very dark - Neptune's Staircase

Last night Tim and Pru started in Balamory, ahem, Tobermory on Mull, where I was disappointed to see that Archie's castle isn't actually pink. They then braved (but were defeated by) treacherous seas on the crossing to Iona, eventually having to resort to the heaving and tilting Caledonian McBrayne ferry instead, the only local vessel strong enough to withstand the waves. On Iona, stranded by the storm, they reflected on this important place of pilgrimage. Once the weather improved, and after bypassing a terrifying looking whirlpool, they crossed the Crinnan Canal by puffer ship to Loch Fyne. Fresh lobster on board, but not an oyster in sight.


We made our own pilgrimage to Iona in 1995, to see John Smith's grave. Thankfully the ferry crossing was smooth, the journey made only mysterious by mist. If nothing else, this series always serves to remind me that life is short, memories may not last, that a loving partner should be cherished forever, and that seeking out harmless pleasures on a daily basis is possibly the secret to a happy existence.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Planet Earth 2

Planet Earth 2 - is this an alternative universe? One where there is no Brexit and Donald Trump hasn't been elected President? One where the nightmares have ended, nobody votes for anything stupid, and everyone lives in peace and harmony and actually gives a shit about humanity?

Sadly not, it's still Planet Earth number one. It's just series number two. Still our flawed, fucked up world. But on camera, it's an achingly beautiful one. One where David Attenborough is in charge, at least of the voiceover. It's not him parachuting off mountain slopes or camping out on a rocky outcrop in a quagmire of penguin shit these days. The man is 90, after all.

All it does is serve to remind us of what is at stake if pacts to reduce carbon emissions are reneged on and countries don't work together for the greater good.

It's not really cheering me up, but it is a stunning watch. From the snake chasing the newly hatched iguanas, to the solitary snow leopards nuzzling the rocks, to the flamingos getting stuck in the ice, to the dancing grizzly bears rubbing up against a tree, to the baby ibex teetering above a vertical drop, it's compelling and breathtaking viewing, all with crystal clear photography; the film slightly slowed to enable us to appreciate it even more.

Though my husband got offended when I said the sloth swimming to find a mate reminded me of him. I don't see why. It really did. And that was one very cute sloth. He captured my husband's slightly slow, lumbering gait perfectly. I'm not saying my husband is a pygmy, or that he has three toes. He doesn't like swimming that much either. I'm not sure he would have ever crossed water to come and find me. Dancing on the revolving floor on Newcastle's Tuxedo Royale moored under the Tyne Bridge does not count. But he is a cuddly, furry beast with a sweet smile.

Many of these are places far more remote than I have ever been, but there are glimpses of the familiar - mountain goats and marmots in Glacier National Park, a waterfall tumbling into the Yellowstone River, an Arabian desert, a blowhole off the New Zealand coast.

How can anyone vote to destroy all this? Because that is essentially what happened in America last week, as a climate change denier was elected to power. How selfish we are. We are as greedy as the eagles squabbling over carrion, as snarling as the snow leopards wanting a mate, as merciless as the snakes, and ultimately as vulnerable to nature as the penguins being smashed against the cliffs in a storm.

Many years ago, I subtitled a documentary about the life of David Attenborough. He was of course quite wonderful - erudite, self-deprecating and very witty. At one point, someone asked him about God. He said he is often criticised for portraying the violent side of animal behaviour in his documentaries when God allegedly made nature so glorious. His response resonated greatly with me at the time:

"Quite frequently people say how...I never give credit to the Almighty Power that created nature... It's funny that people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things... orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses. But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. I reply and say, 'Presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well.' I find that baffling, to credit a merciful God that action. Therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truthful and factual and allow people to make up their own mind about the moralities, or indeed the theology, of this thing."

Whether or not there is a god, and personally I do not believe that there is, man must not play god with what we have.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Dark Angel

It's a very British thing to share "a nice cup of tea" with someone. It usually puts the world to rights, even if only briefly. Unless you happen to be Alexander Litvinkenko or in any way related to Mary Ann Cotton, in which case "a nice cup of tea" is seriously bad news.

Mary Ann Cotton was Britain's first female serial killer. Dark Angel told her rather far-fetched seeming story. But hailing from County Durham, she really existed. Using a teapot full of arsenic, when not scrubbing away bed bugs, Mary Ann murdered her way through at least three husbands, one lover, her mother, best friend, and possibly several of her children, and a few of other people's too. Her husbands all had life insurance policies, which were readily paid out to our evil, hyperfertile, softspoken Mackem. (Not that she got wealthy from their deaths - she remained poor and debt-ridden.) It seems that people so commonly died of typhoid or gastric fever in those days that it took a very long time for the claims departments to get suspicious about all these painful deaths by vomiting. In fact they never did - she was eventually found out by a pharmacist. Mary Ann gets life insurance money for her dead children too, although the implication on ITV is that none of them were killed deliberately. The reality is more blurred.

If the TV series is to be believed, an awful lot of her children died before she discovered arsenic. Mary Ann's life was stuck in one long miserable cycle of pregnancy, birth and bereavement. Her first husband (and in fact every subsequent husband), as far as she was concerned, was a useless tosser. Particularly after she discovers sex with local bad boy Joe Nattrass. She moves on from town to town, job to job, husband to husband, but Nattrass remains a constant provider of pleasure and entertainment. (Until she bumps him off too.) I will never be able to look at the pier in Saltburn again. Let's not think about what might happen underneath the boardwalk, but last summer, the railings above had been brilliantly yarnbombed.

Yarnbombing, and the view towards Mary Ann's family home

The other main location shoot for Dark Angel was none other than our park at the end of our street. Filming was done over a few days in August 2015. Stupidly, I didn't take any pictures. We had our usual route to the reading cafe and play area blocked by television trucks, lighting rigs, bossy women with clipboards, and people in Victorian costume pushing prams and carrying parasols.

We love our park. Built by Joseph Rowntree as a memorial to his factory workers who fell in the First World War, the park opened in 1921. Only having a small, damp north-facing yard, we use it as our garden. And we don't have to mow its lawns, prune its trees or weed its flower beds. Although given government austerity, that time may yet come. It might be ankle deep in goose poo and flood regularly, but on a regular day, the park a haven of green and tranquility. (The goose poo was all too apparent on Dark Angel.) It has fun climbing frames and a zip wire, play sculptures, a woodland walk, a library cafe, model boating and wildlife ponds, waterfowl, islands of coot nests and abandoned goose eggs, a mosaic maze, bowling greens, weeping willows, tennis courts and rose pergolas. It hosts regular events like cycling festivals, sponsored walks, forest schools, and an annual birthday party where the queues for facepainting stretch for miles. The other day, a thousand KitKats were strung from the aforementioned pergolas. It's the sort of magical thing that happens there. Rowntree Park has many people who care for it, and one resident park keeper, who sails around in a dinghy when the flood waters rise. It opens late in summer, but closes far too early in winter. Last winter, after storms Desmond and Eva, the park was full of water for several weeks, and badly damaged. It's made a miraculous recovery, thanks to a lot of hard work by the city council and local residents.

Chocolate bombing

The same pergolas in flood

As well as Rowntree Park and lovely Saltburn On Sea, filming for Dark Angel also took place at Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, the Beamish Museum and a house on a familiar looking street that I can't quite identify but it must be round here. Cotton was hanged in the old prison yard of the Castle Museum in York . The teapot ended up in the River Ouse just opposite our house.

Dark Angel was silly, sexed up, contrived, tended to state the bleedin' obvious ("Keep back, lass, arsenic is POISONOUS!"), but nonetheless an entertaining yarn for a wintry Monday night.