Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood Heroes

After the whole hideous Jimmy Savile business, it felt like there was no longer anything sacred about my childhood television viewing. It had all been spoiled forever. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and they had all turned out to be a bunch of perverts. And we, in our innocence, had been completely and utterly duped. Savile was disturbingly close to home too, as he had worked with my grandfather in Leeds, and met my parents and aunts - and apparently me as a baby - at hospital social events. My mother recalled one of his cigars in an ashtray in their lounge.

Then Rolf Harris. Sunday afternoon cartoon fodder for me and my brother once we were back from our weekly swimming session at Leventhorpe pool. "Can you see what it is yet?" When we lived in Crouch End, Harris regularly went into the primary school down the road to give art lessons, open fetes etc, as his grandchild was a pupil there. But he was not what he seemed either, and was released from prison just over a month ago. No wonder the Queen's smile looked so forced on his portrait of her. I am no royalist, but she is an astute woman who can express much without words. It can't be coincidence that she dressed up as the European Union flag for her vellum-penned speech in the House of Lords this week.

However, recent events have restored some of the balance. There were good, honest people out there making television when I was little after all. I went to see Peter Lord, creator of Morph, give a talk at the York Festival of Ideas a couple of weeks ago. He is a York graduate, which I had forgotten, and one of the founders of the wondrous Aardman Animations. Morph lives on even now. Even without Tony Hart, who has become famous for nearly dying twice. I had really bad stomach ache throughout the talk (thanks to "the fork"), but it was lovely to hear Lord give an account of his career, showing some brilliant clips, even if these were hindered by technical glitches from the rather strange audiovisual set-up in the Bootham School auditorium. But nonetheless we saw everything from their first attempts at stop animation (photographing people jumping in the air then splicing the footage together to make it look like they were flying), to the original Aardman superhero character, to making the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel (the success of which meant the Aardman Christmas parties trebled in size). Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! 

And don't forget Shaun...

Peter Lord was terribly modest, and spent the entirely of the talk modelling a piece of brown plasticine into a fresh Morph that was then auctioned off for charity. He also paid tribute to the wonderful Peter Sallis, who had passed away a few days before. He showed a clip of Sallis remembering how Nick Park had persuaded him to record the voice of Wallace when he was a young film student. Sallis graciously obliged, for very little money. He heard nothing more until Nick Park phoned him up six years later to announce "I've finished! Do you want to come and see it?" Such is the time-consuming nature of animating plasticine models.

Peter Sallis is a loss, though my childhood was more spent watching him rolling down a hill in a bath in Last Of The Summer Wine than in Wallace and Gromit. But that just reveals my age.

OK, so this isn't Shep...

And there have been two more recent passings of children's television presenters from my childhood that reassured me that they weren't all terrible sexual predators. First, John Noakes, Blue Peter hero. Who will always be remembered for an elephant standing on his foot, and climbing up Nelson's column on the world's most precarious ladder, without even a nod to health and safety. Because it was the 1970s and the BBC was, well, distracted. Rumour has it that the first time John Noakes climbed Nelson, the sound didn't record, so he had to do it all over again. A brave (and patient) man indeed.

"Windy's cider is very strong cider..."

Secondly, Brian Cant, voice of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and presenter of Play School and Play Away until both were abruptly decommissioned in 1984. I never really saw him on screen again, though it seems he kept working right up until a few years ago, when Parkinson's took hold. Bizarrely, his copresenters on Play Away included Tony Robinson and Jeremy Irons. Which just goes to show any actor with rent to pay will do children's television. In the 1970s and '80s, 'kippers' had no connotations with Nigel Farage, and it was still acceptable (see above) for people to sing songs about ladies in a harem to young kids.

Our daughter is growing out of CBeebies, but I wonder which of its many presenters she will remember into adulthood. Justin "Mr Tumble" Fletcher? (Who of course is one of the voices on Aardman Animation's Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.) Lovely Chris and "Show me show me your groovy moves" Pui? Andy "Dinosaur Adventures" Day? I will be heartbroken if any of them are subsequently hit by scandal. Apart from Topsy and Tim's mum. She deserves all she gets.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Wife Swap: Brexit Special

Wife Swap: something my husband may wish was more widely available. Also a typically scandalous Channel 4 title for something that is in fact slightly more inane - a chance for families with opposing beliefs or lifestyles to see how the other half lives. The female of the family swaps places with the female of another for a week and goes to live in their home. First, she follows the "rules" and lifestyle of the family where she is a guest, including doing whatever work the woman does. Then she tries to introduce some of her own ways of doing things to the family. But naturally there are some deliberate attempts to fuel an argument or court controversy. I am still traumatised by the memory of the mindless sap who pretended to be a Japanese geisha girl morning, noon and night.

But now it was something closer to home - a family of Leave voters swapping with a family of Remain voters. One of the accusations bandied about after last year's (in my opinion) disastrous referendum was that voters lived in their own bubbles, each believing that everybody thought like them, and never hearing the alternative view. Remain bred Remain, Daily Mail bred Daily Mail. I saw nothing but pro-EU posts in my Facebook feed from my friends, and all the posters (bar I think two) in our part of York were for Remain. Whereas Leave voters got fed bullshit by Boris, Gove, Dacre and Murdoch and the side of a bus, which was all self-reinforcing.

So now it was time for the two opposing views to have a conversation, and try and understand each other. Only it turns out you still can't have a conversation with a Leave voter. They just stand and shout crap, and refuse to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices. They come out with Daily Express soundbites about taking back control and wanting their country back whilst blatantly failing to understand what the EU actually is. This Leave husband and dad, Andy, was no exception. He took Kat, a German migrant, to an East End market to show how there was only one white face left manning the stalls (who was Jewish). Seriously. But Andy's not racist, apparently. No. He just doesn't recognise his own Little England any more. Kat tries to point out that the EU has nothing to do with how many Pakistani people are selling mangos or saris in London. At home in their garden over a glass of wine, Kat tries to explain that EU migrants do not get a house and full unemployment benefits within ten minutes of landing at Dover. But Andy won't listen. He's read everything he knows in the paper. In the Canvey Island pub where his wife Pauline works, Kat rolls her eyes over an outside smoke as she tries to make the punters understand that she is the EU migrant and not the Syrian refugees who are fleeing a terrible war. She just gets shouted down with Dacre quotes. "Is this about not liking the EU, or not liking brown skins?" she asks in exasperation. But they're not racist either, apparently.

Meanwhile, Pauline, the Leave wife, over a meal of boeuf bourgignon, is surprised that the Germans in the room no longer feel welcome in the UK, having been told in the street to go back to their "Hitler Merkel". It's not that sort of immigration she's opposed to, you see. Not the sort where people pay taxes and work hard and have an education and raise children here. Well, what other sort did the EU give us, you moron? She objects that she's not allowed to put on a nativity play at Christmas any more. Which is again, nothing to do with the EU. She is shot down by Guardian-reading left-wing opinion, but is ultimately a little humbled by it. Nonetheless, she still goes and puts a picture of Nigel Farage above the fireplace. And later hides a garden gnome of him in the garden.

Meanwhile, Leave husband Andy won't take his England flags down. Kat should fit in, he says. "When in Rome..." Except he was totally unable to realise the irony of that statement, having just voted against the treaty of its name. But then, he acknowledges, Kat is the one with the facts. Which makes her the one in the wrong, apparently. Kat takes him to a Polish restaurant, which he is surprised to find isn't staffed by criminals, but instead by nice folk from Poland. With his love of roasted pork belly strips, really he should fit right in. When I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic Coast in Poland in 1996, we were expected to eat fatty cuts of meat three times a day.

Pork, European style

Slupsk Summer School, 1996

Andy's unhousetrained dog learns to poo on the Daily Express at least.

At the end of the day, Kat still feels adrift. And who can blame her? She's done her best, but it was like banging her head against the proverbial brick wall, only one festooned with the flag of St George. The only small sign of progress is that Andy and Pauline, who have definitely found Kat very intense and quite hard work, try not to list any anti-German stereotypes in the car on the way home. For now, that's as good as you are going to get.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

So this is my essential Sunday night viewing for the next ten weeks, or as long as "the fork" lets me last. I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, but The Handmaid's Tale was the only one of her works that I didn't enjoy the first time I read it. Nothing to do with Atwood's writing, it was simply that I thought it was a horrible story, with an awful premise. I found it genuinely disturbing. I worried about the mind that had dreamt the whole thing up.

But a few months ago, I read it again with my book group, and this time saw so much more. The storyline couldn't shock me any more, so I could observe the wit and insight behind the words with much greater objectivity. And a lot has happened to the world since I first read the book. I realised that Margaret Atwood hadn't just dreamt the story up out of nowhere in some sort of sick moment. She had studied and observed how totalitarian regimes handle women. She had understood the oppressive nature of extreme religious beliefs towards the female gender. She had recognised that man believes his sole purpose on this earth is to procreate, and the lengths that people may go to in order to pass on their genes. In a way, she had, writing in 1985 about an American dystopia, foreseen the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. We recently read I Am Malala in our book group, which made all too clear the ruined role of and lack of opportunities for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat Valley under their rule. And current US Vice President Mike Pence seems to hold beliefs not a million miles away from many of the Gilead regime, which is why the book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity long before the television adaptation.

The television adaptation is great. Very dark, both figuratively and literally, but it seems that electricity has gone the way of fertility so there aren't many lights to turn on. There are many shocking scenes: Janine losing an eye, the bodies strung up by the river, the Eyes in the vans, the ceremonies of rape, death and birth. But there is also Atwood's sense of the surreal, and her sense of humour. The technicolor macaroons. The Scrabble game. The oranges. A Simple Minds song. Atwood herself has a brief cameo, a blurry spectre looming large to slap a girl down in front of Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.

I love the use of flashback to Offred's past life, and her barbed interjections on the voiceover that reveal her innermost thoughts. Elisabeth Moss can say a thousand words with her facial expressions in any case - she might seem mute, repressed and withdrawn, but you always believe that there is a firebrand within.

I have seen Margaret Atwood twice in person - once at the Hay on Wye book festival discussing Oryx and Crake with David Aaronovitch, and secondly at the Theatre Royal in York this year discussing Hagseed, her reworking of The Tempest. Both times I was struck by how staggeringly intelligent, erudite and eloquent she is. She talks slowly and steadily, but her mind must be racing as she speaks in order to be able to continually come up with those sorts of verbal goods. In York she kept her coat on throughout the session and seemed only to be dropping in for the briefest of moments, yet the hour felt far longer owing to the sheer richness of her contributions. Atwood managed to give interesting answers to even the most banal of questions. The York interviewer was simpering and simplistic, and the first person in the audience to ask a question took about five minutes of precious time to do so. He began with the epithet "I'm retired", which raised a collective groan, and he then proceeded to tell his life story, waffling on to eventually form some sort of question which basically seemed to require a denunciation of the "youth of today" and all its ilk. Atwood graciously shot him down with her highlighting of environmental concerns (the focus of many of her novels, particularly the MaddAddam trilogy), to ensure that her priorities lie with making sure that there is actually a world still here in fifty years' time for "the youth of today" to live in. The Handmaid's Tale presents a world where "youth" as a concept stands in danger of being lost forever. The human race is dying out, and the fault is entirely its own.

Question Time Special

While the news has been dominated for the past two weeks by the election and the terrible attacks in Manchester and London, my life has become pathetically obsessed by the fact that I have a piece of plastic fork stuck inside my intestine. One moment of carelessness, the sort of thing that happens when you have a young child and spend your life not concentrating and attempting to multi-task, and as a result I am now living in constant fear that I am going to win a Darwin award for the most stupid death of the year.

We were having a lovely day out in Bridlington, and had been to see the breeding sea birds at the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve.

Our daughter was full of the moans, as she had been made to go for a long walk and it was well past her lunchtime. So we pulled up at our favourite chippy, 149 on Marton Road, and bought ourselves a picnic to eat on the cliffs next to the car park at Sewerby. Randomly, some friends from York were seated at the next bench. So I was talking, sharing my meal with my daughter, admiring the view, feeling pretty darn hungry myself, enjoying the yummy food, and therefore not paying attention to my cutlery. It was only when I swallowed that I felt something sharp. "Crikey, that was a big bone, or a tough bit of batter," I thought to myself, only to then notice that a tine of my fork was missing. I tried to calm my instant panic, by reassuring myself that it would just past straight through, like one of my top teeth when I was seven, which dropped out of its socket while I was leaping up and down on a bean bag and I reactively gulped down.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on things, it hasn't re-emerged, over two weeks later. And I have a sharp pain on the right-hand side of my small intestine. And no doctor will effing believe me. The trouble is that plastic doesn't show up on X-rays. So there is nothing to see. I have had a CT scan with oral contrast, quite a miraculous achievement in itself for a Sunday afternoon in York Hospital on a Bank Holiday weekend, but all it showed is that my bowel is still intact. Obviously I don't want to be cut open unnecessarily, but I know it's there, sticking into me a little more as each days go by. And I can't get the bloody thing out, no matter how hard I try.

So here I continue, each day in pain, each day feeling very sorry for myself, and a bit scared of what the next few days or weeks might bring, with a sharp object in my body made of toxic plastic. It brings home to you just how special your family are to you, and how much there is to live for, and all the things that you never quite got round to doing. "You aren't going to die," my husband groans in exasperation. He is used to this sort of talk from me, and naturally doesn't like it. I am very paranoid about my health. I always was, and then watching my mother die of cancer made me a million times worse, especially now I have a child of my own, who I couldn't bear to leave motherless, because I just fricking adore her. 

And what a bloody idiotic thing to have done. That desperation to travel back in time and reset the clock, to go to a different chippy, to just chew my food that bit more thoroughly so that my teeth could have found the big sodding bit of plastic before my gullet. But it's happened, and there is nothing I can do about it now.

So it was good in a way that Question Time came to York last Friday, to remind me of the bigger picture. Here I am stressing about a tiny piece of fork, when we have the chance to decide and change our futures this coming Thursday, and when the May and Corbyn bandwagon was rolling into town. They'd both been to York already during the campaign. May spoke to ten Tory party activists in a back room of the Barbican (that "getting out and meeting voters rather than taking part in TV debates" that she keeps referring to, part of her "strong and stable leadership" mantra repeated ad nauseum, alongside "It is very clear that" and "negotiating Brexit" and pulling that funny fish face every time she tries to think of her own words) whereas Corbyn addressed a packed St Helen's Square, holding up an amplifier so that everyone could better hear Rachael Maskell's introduction. This was early in the campaign, when he was very lacking in the polls, but even then he had the popular touch. 

I have never been a Corbyn fan. I am angry that he ordered a three-line whip on the Article 50 vote - and that he voted to allow May to hold this election in the first place. He seemed to have no clue about what it means to be in Opposition, i.e. that you are supposed to oppose. But Corbyn is genuine at least. He is a man of conviction and integrity. He tries to stay on the side of decency. He is a pacifist. He gets out and talks to people. He is comfortable in his own skin. He tries to answer questions put to him. He doesn't U-turn at the drop of a hat, though he might want to learn the art of compromise a little more succinctly. But most importantly, he isn't full of shit. Unlike Theresa May. And all of that has counted a lot over recent weeks. 

But whatever doubts I may have had about Corbyn, I am going to vote Labour in this election, assuming my plastic fork lets me survive til Thursday. This is partly because I have a huge amount of respect for York Central's current MP, Rachael Maskell, who defied Corbyn's whip to vote against triggering Article 50. She chose to listen to the majority of her constituents, who voted to remain by a far greater margin than the country as a whole voted to leave the European Union. She has served our city tirelessly since being elected in 2015, and frankly I have no idea when she sleeps. She is there for the big issues, and also the small. When the city was inundated by water, there she was on our street, speaking to the residents next to the park whose houses were full of the river. She lambasted David Cameron for the government's lack of funding for flood defences. When Virgin Media trashed our pavements in Southbank laying new broadband cables, she was there demanding that they pay for the damage. When a group of mums at school campaigned for a safer crossing on Bishopthorpe Road, she came to see for herself and to ask what she could do. She has much of Corbyn's honesty and integrity, and I hope will go far. But the Tories are gunning for her seat. They have the money to throw at their campaign, and Theresa May is busy sending her glossy brochures out to the more marginal wards of York, particularly those who leaned more towards Brexit. It's greedy and despicable.

Anyway, here we were, Question Time, from the Ron Cooke hub at the University of York, part of the new Heslington East campus. Not a leaders' debate, because the Maybot only does pre-programmed cliched rhetoric, but a chance for the public to ask their questions. Although no one I knew - pro-European, left-leaning - who applied to go on the programme was successful. Instead, the biased BBC had managed to dredge up a load of entrepreneurial, wealthy, nuclear-war loving, anti-foreign aid and anti-Northern Ireland peace process Tories, young and old, to have a go at Corbyn. Gold star to the woman who finally had enough of the red-button grilling, and asked if people would kindly refrain from discussing the murder of potentially millions. Anyway, the audience certainly didn't reflect the people of York - who I generally regard as open-minded, tolerant, cultured and international - that well. They were more a reflection of the Saturday afternoon binge-drinking hellhole that our city can turn into from time to time. There were a few awkward questions for Theresa May too - notably from a nurse who has had only 1% pay rises (not in line with inflation) since 2010 and from a lady who had had a terrible experience during a work capability assessment and has had to wait years for psychological treatment. But nobody pushed May on how many people she was planning or not planning to bomb, or how she will deal with the fallout from Brexit on the borders in Ireland and the IRA. That would have made her pull a multitude of fishfaces.