Retrospection

February 16, 2014 at 8:11 pm (Retrospection) ()

The usual end-of-year roundup. And not a bad one.

January: Performance of The Day after the Fair at The Royalty, directed by little old me. Supremely proud of the production and the response it got.

February: Saw The Mousetrap. Baffled as to why it’s so famous.

March: Trip to York to see Tara Fitzgerald in The Winter’s Tale. Worth the trip.

April: Performed in Proof at The Royalty, playing a Mathematician with mental issues. Worth seeing the film if you can.

May: Trip to Manchester for poetry, art and theatre. And real ale and and Hats. That’s like a holy pentanity, or something.

June: In the tech box for once, running lights for Deathtrap with Washington Theatre Group.

July: A camping and swimming trip, around the Northumbrian Coast. Swam at Low Newton and Sugar Sands, freezing cold but worth every penny of the wetsuit. Became vice-chair of the Royalty Theatre.

August: A break in the Lake District, firstly staying in Keswick and seeing some of the finest theatre I’ve ever witnessed, at the Theatre by the Lake. This was followed by some camping in Grizedale, now becoming a favourite camping haunt. And some swims in Grasmere and Rydal water, on warm sunny days in beautiful surroundings. Played the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland with Washington Theatre Group.

September: Another North-East Skinny Dip, preceded by an evening swim around the Farne Islands surrounded by seals. Easily the best experience of the year. Also, a trip to Brighton.

October: Playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men at The Royalty; easily the biggest acting challenge I’ve ever had. Still surprised that I got through it.

November: Finish playing Lennie. Suprised I got through it.

December: Crosswords turn 100. Well, it’s a big deal to me.

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Apples on Tour – The Lake District

December 30, 2013 at 6:44 pm (Apples on Tour, Stuff I do, Theatre) (, , )

Just realised I forgot to post this in August. I apologise sincerely to those whose lives have been irretrievably ruined by the transgression, and will undertake to have myself ritually flogged with an electric eel as soon as I can be bothered.

I’ve been visiting the Lake District regularly (at least once a year) for the past few years now, though only for camping trips to Grizedale, set nicely between Coniston and Windermere in the South Lakes. Last year, the trip was memorable for the wrong reasons – it was abandoned after half of the campsite nearly ended up as part of Morcambe Bay after a downpour that even surprised the local farmer. This year we decided on August instead of June in the hope of better weather, but I’d decided to test the humour of the weather gods by adding a stay in the North Lakes – Keswick, to be precise. I’d been once before, but then only for an afternoon about fourteen years previously – and a town with its own pencil museum cannot be disregarded so lightly.

The journey from Sunderland began with the A1 south as an entrée that I’m quite used to by now, nothing spectacular there. The main course of the A66 over the Pennines was still familiar, but much more beautiful as the Backbone of England rose on either side. Once into Cumbria, dessert was sumptuous. Huge green hills and valleys to the left and right; I have to admit that I was keeping somewhat under the speed limit to be able to appreciate it all (while keeping eyes on the road, obviously). Past Penrith and heading toward Keswick, all else seemed dwarfed by Skiddaw and other local peaks. Just before hitting Keswick centre, I stopped at the Castlerigg stone circle – a prehistoric site of the Stonehenge sort, just with smaller stones and no crossbars (which changed prehistoric football forever). But of more interest is the view – mountains all around: Causey Pike, The Catbells, Blencathra, Castlerigg Fell and Helvellyn – the best name of an English mountain ever.

That evening saw the first of three trips I’d planned to the Theatre by the Lake – this for See How They Run, a classic farce by Philip King with the standard mistaken identities and fast-paced comings and goings. Plus a bishop who looked a little like Bishop Brennan. A very good production, and a humorous way to begin the holiday.

Wednesday morning saw a trip to the Pencil Museum, Keswick having been the first pencil-producing place on the planet. Small, but perfectly formed, which is more than you could say for the Puzzling Place – a small museum about optical illusions. Probably more for kids, to be fair. The weather put the kibosh on plans to do a bit of walking, but another trip to the theatre later on proved a treat – Vincent in Brixton, a studio play about Van Gogh’s early adulthood in London, has to be one the finest pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – acting spot on, set perfectly detailed and a captivating story.

Thursday’s weather was a lot better, so I took a trip to Ullswater in the hope of seeing those daffodils of Wordsworth fame – failed there. Maybe the wrong time or the wrong place, but I wandered lonely as a cloud around Glenridding anyway. Stunning views around Ullswater in the bright sunshine. I really need to go back to the lakes at some point and do some proper fell walking. The evening saw a walk around the Derwent close to sunset, before a final trip to the theatre – this time for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – a revenge tragedy in the Shakespeare mould, but with more sex and violence. And blood. I’m sure that was a real heart and blood in the final scene, though we’ll assume not human. But effective nonetheless.

So, that was three plays in three nights, all excellent productions drawing upon similar casts (six plays to choose from over the week; a good number of their actors appeared in three shows each). If I’m ever back in Keswick, I’ll have to visit again.

On Friday I checked out of the hotel, and headed for Grizedale, with some Wordsworth tourism on the way. Grasmere is home to his grave, as well as those of a number of his family, including his noted sister Dorothy. I saw those, and then headed to Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, both worth a look if you’re a fan of the poet, or even of Dorothy. Grasmere is also home to Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread shop. I’m no gingerbread connoisseur, but it was fine, fine gingerbread. Then, onto Grizedale to hope for great weather, which the BBC was not promising.

But the BBC weather people once again proved as useful as a sundial in Castle Dracula. Saturday was nice and sunny, so it was back off to Grasmere for a swim in the lake. Not too cold – certainly better than the North Sea was the previous month, and made all the better by beautiful mountainous surroundings. An hour’s dip was followed by pub lunch in the Eagle’s Head at Satterthwaite – the game pie there is one of the miracles of the modern world. It was the highlight of our ill-fated trip last year, and was no less wondrous this time around.

The downpours forecast by the BBC even stayed away on Sunday, when the weather was even better – only one cloud in the sky, wandering as lonely as Wordsworth. Thus a second swim in Rydal was enjoyed, again with mountains and trees and pastures and other assorted greenery all around. And again, followed by a pub lunch, and finally, the trip home. A wonderful few days spent in what I believe is the most beautiful part of the country.

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Nelson Mandela

December 9, 2013 at 12:04 am (Politics) (, , , , )

February 11th, 1990, 16:15 (GMT+2), I know where I was. Because it was a major, major event – in my part of the world somewhat more than most. Being only 11 at the time, I didn’t quite understand why, or who this person really was. All I’d had to go on was what little I’d been told about him and the group he’d worked for, and that wasn’t terribly flattering to him.

My family had moved to South Africa when I was three. From what I can remember of the first few years there, I was aware that there were white people, and that there were black people. I was vaguely aware that there was little interaction between the two. At the two nursery schools I attended, there were no black children. I think there were black menial staff at those places, but no black teachers. I would see black people in the street, though never seemingly as affluent as white people. My family had a black maid for a time – it was not at all unusual for white people to have black domestic staff. This was what Apartheid created – not merely a system of racial segregation, but a racialised class system, too.

In March 1985, we moved north of the border to Botswana. In Botswana, there was not even a sign of apartheid. In fact, the first President of that country, Seretse Khama, had been exiled from the country in the early 50s when it was still the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, for the “crime” of marrying a white woman he’d met while studying at Oxford. The South Africans had complained to the British about the marriage. Britain, not wishing to compromise mineral trading with the South Africans, weakly submitted to the complaint. Thankfully, the exile lasted only five years.

But the inequality between black and white that I saw in South Africa was simply not there in Botswana – the black and white stripes on the country’s flag, in fact, are there to symbolise that very equality. There was still something of a racial class system – the white ex-patriates tended to be the more affluent and have the better jobs – but wealth and power were by no means the preserve of the whites. The country, and indeed the town, were run by native Batswana people. Before moving there, I recall my parents telling me that there would be black and white students in my school, which seemed like an odd thing at the time – something I hadn’t experienced. But we got there, and sure enough – black and white kids running around the playground not really caring (for the most part) whether their playmates were black or white. The only separation was languages – when the white kids went off to learn Afrikaans, the Batswana kids went off to learn their first language, Setswana.

So on that day in February 1990, I think I’d only known what apartheid was for a short period of time; maybe less than a year. If memory serves, we’d all known that this Mandela guy was going to be released in the run up to it, and I’d only known his name for a matter of weeks, maybe days. And all I knew of him was that he was a terrorist with the African National Congress. I’m not sure if I understood why such a person was being released. But there I was, watching a major event in African history, from the living room floor of D66, Tshkudu Crescent, EU III, Jwaneng, Botswana. An event that was to cause all sorts of turmoil in South Africa, until it seemed to settle (to a degree) in 1994, when Mandela became President.

As the years have gone, of course, I’ve grown older and gained a greater understanding of what happened in South Africa over those years. The world at large has come to see Mandela as less of a terrorist and more of a figurehead of a civil rights movement – and that includes me. Not everybody has this opinion, of course. I have to say that being a person who disagrees with terrorist methods (which I’ll loosely define as political violence against civilian rather than military targets), this does cause some conflict with me. The terrorist vs. freedom fighter debate is an old one, and you’ll all have your own views about which category Mandela falls into.

For my part, I don’t believe that what he did with Umkhonto we Sizwe was right, even if as a means to justify an end. But does that mean that I should ignore what he’s done since his release from prison? His leadership of the civil rights movement that smashed apartheid and brought some equality to South Africa, his charity work, his role in international diplomacy? Of course not. After all, other figures in history have done much worse, and for some reason still have a pristine press to the majority. There was, for instance, the genocidal maniac who, in a fit of impatience, decided to indiscriminately slaughter 2,700 men, women and children after the fall of Acre in 1189. Nowadays, we call that person “Richard the Lionheart”.

As such, all of the tributes paid to Mandela since his death are not unjustified – though I get the impression that some are purely for show. It would be wrong for history to forget why he was put in prison, but it would also be wrong to forget what he did after he was finally released. So let us remember him for the good that he did, but likewise, let us learn from his mistakes, and try to quosh oppression by non-violent means where there’s even a chance it’s possible.

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Desert Island Horror Movies

August 13, 2013 at 8:01 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

I doubt I could really do this sort of thing for all movies, as there are just too many I wouldn’t fancy leaving out. So I thought I’d just do horror movies this time – my favourite film genre, and it leaves it open for me to work on another genre when ideas for the Desert-Islandy things begin to dry up.

But the seasoned film buff may sense a problem here, and that’s the openness to interpretation that the term “horror movie” attracts. Father Dougal, we must recall, found “a Volkswagen with a mind of its own” to be the stuff of nightmares, after all. However, here you’re just going to have to make do with what I decide is a horror movie. Let’s face it, it’s an unlikely enough scenario that I’d suddenly have to grab ten of my favourite horrors before being cast away on a desert island that presumably has a fully-working home cinema system and power supply, without having to add the notion of a customs official testing each film against a list of pre-ordained criteria. Let’s just leave reality out of this, okay?

So here we go, in no particular order (until the top three). Unlike my last couple of these things, no reserves, just a top ten.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

There aren’t too many American movies that are at least partially set in the Yorkshire Moors, which really helps this one. You’ve got the classic dumb American teenagers who stumble into the Slaughtered Lamb pub (a great name if ever there was one), full of not entirely welcoming people who suddenly become bad at darts. But the intrepid young explorers are at least told to stay away on the roads. That’s the last thing they do, obviously, and it’s not long before they both become a midnight snack for some hideous toothy beast. One of them dies, the other ends up having a fling with Jenny Agutter, which is a good recommendation for lycanthropic savagery in anybody’s book. However, he soon realises that he’s become a werewolf, and we’re treated to one of the better werewolf scene changes that cinema has produced. The film ends with his alter-ego going on the rampage in central London, where surprisingly, people actually notice, and the Met police actually try to do something about it. Look out for a young Rik Mayall playing chess in the pub scene at the beginning.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

If you like your horror colourful, melodramatic and with Vincent Price in, look no further. Our Vinnie, the chap who gave us the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, plays Edward Lionheart, a has-been Shakespearean actor who has faked his own death, and plots revenge on the local critic’s circle who have not looked favourably upon his work. And the best part – he kills them all in the manner of Shakespearean deaths. There are lovely gory moments, like the surgical beheading of Captain Mainwairing, and the realisation of what’s happened to those poor, innocent poodles. Being melodrama, it’s camp and over the top, but knowingly so, which makes everything all right. Diana Dors is in it too, which helps any film. A must for any actor who has ever felt that they’d fancy shuffling a critic off their mortal coil. So a must for any actor.

Frankenstein (1931)

We’re talking James Whale’s version here, from 1931. This is the film that gave us the iconic imagery we always associate with Frankenstein – The lumbering, square-headed creature with bolts in his neck that turned Boris Karloff into a movie legend, the electronic lab equipment and Colin Clive’s manic screams of “It’s Aliiiiiive!” on realising that his creature was aliiiiiive. Karloff is brilliant as the docile creature, though, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him – even after the very controversial scene with the girl and the flower, which even today you can’t watch it with feeling some sense of utter dread. The sequel Bride of Frankenstein, is almost as good, and even has Katie Nana out of Mary Poppins as the creature’s intended. Odd that those are the two roles she’s best known for. Like many of Universal’s 1930s flagship horrors, it spawned numerous other sequels that weren’t nearly as good, but always either referred to a relative of the monster (“Aunt of Dracula!”) or some unlikely combo (“The Invisible Man Meets Frankenstein Meets The Wolfgirl!”). Best watched drunk, those ones.

Carry on Screaming (1966)

Okay, fair enough. Not really a horror. But I’m on a desert island, and some comedy now and then would be welcome, what with all the horror stuff I’ve brought along. This just about fits the bill as horror – It’s a spoof mostly of Hammer movies, but with nods to Universal horrors and one or two others. Here the villains – Kenneth Williams and (swoon) Fenella Fielding, are running a beastly operation to turn pretty young girls into mannequins, before selling them off to shops. The girls are abducted by Oddbodd – a boiler-suited half-Frankenstein’s-Monster-half-werewolf halfwit, whose body parts can regenerate with an electrical charge. Inspector Sidney Bung takes on the case of the missing women with his foolish sidekick, Slowbottom. It’s full of the usual Carry On stuff – pretty ladies, lusty fellas, innuendo and silly jokes. Oddly, no Sid James in this one, but Harry H. Corbett makes up for it in the role of the downtrodden Bung.

The Omen (1976)

Both The Omen and The Exorcist were gamechangers in the Horror world when they came out, being set in the modern day, with spooky music, and having an element of Satanism within. Excuse me for a moment while I shoot myself in the face for having used the word “gamechangers”.

Okay, done. Boy, did that hurt. Anyway – The Spawn of Satan is born, and some fool does the old switcheroo with the Prince of Darkness and a US diplomat’s kid. You initially wonder how anyone would notice, but it soon becomes strikingly obvious that he’s a bit odd – when he goes to church, he screams. When he visits the zoo, the monkeys scream. When he has a birthday party, his nanny hangs herself. Gregory Peck, the diplomat in question, realises something is wrong (you don’t say), and investigates it with the help of a photographer. In truth, this movie is best remembered (by me at any rate), for the crazy death scenes that fans of the Final Destination series should enjoy. There’s a priest impaled by a church lightning rod, and the photographer is decapitated by a pane of glass. Gritty and gory in a way that Hammer or Universal would never have dared. The 2006 sequel had its charms, but this original will always stand out.

The Wolfman (1941)

Often considered by the first werewolf film by people who’ve never seen the earlier Werewolf of London, this Universal Horror from the early forties is the more famous of the two, and features Lon Chaney Jr. as the transmogrifying terror. He play Larry Talbot who, thanks to a gypsy curse – one of those gypsies being Bela Lugosi – becomes very hairy and toothy, with a taste for liking his steaks very rare, at a full moon. Like any good werewolf flick, at first he doesn’t realise it’s him committing all the weird murders going on – making the goodie also the baddie, and making film students wonder just how they analyse the conflicts between protagonist and antagonist. The film also stars Claude Rains of The Invisible Man fame, making it one of the early horror ensemble casts.

The Nanny (1965)

Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a horror, especially as Bette Davis is the title character. But it’s one of the most interesting Hammer movies about – perhaps because it doesn’t look at all like Hammer. In fact, had I not known it was a Hammer, I’d have thought it was Hitchcock. Possibly more suspense/thriller than horror, then, but it seems to deserve inclusion here.

We begin with a young boy being taken back home after a stay in some sort of institution for kids with behavioural problems. We don’t know quite what these were, but it’s clear that there’s some serious animosity toward the family’s nanny from the boy. He considers here evil. He’s considered a troublemaker. We don’t know quite what to believe. But as the film’s plot opens up, we begin to see why the tension’s there. We slowly discover who IS the malign influence. In some quite shocking detail, for a film of that age (and in black and white). A cinematic gem, but an unfortunately little-known one.

But now, we come to the top three. I’ve found it too difficult to rank these three, so I won’t put them in any sort of order. Oddly enough, they all star Christopher Lee. Which is only right.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

It’s Tim Burton. And it stars Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci and Christopher Lee. Plus Uncle Monty, Emperor Palpatine, Dumbledore (v2.0), Alfred the Butler (v2.0), Queenie from Blackadder, Winona Ryder’s dad out of Beetlejuice, Darth Maul and the guy out of Pulp Fiction who kept the watch up his arse. And more. How’s that for a cast?

It’s a looser-than-loose interpretation of Washington Irving’s story, putting Depp’s Ichabod Crane in the role of a detective sent to investigate some beheadings in upstate New York. Crane is a man of science, and disbelieves stories of ghosts and a Headless Horseman. But after he finds a strange tree that can only be a Tim Burton creation, and sees the horseman appear, he has other ideas. All this while he’s falling in love with Christina Ricci (who wouldn’t?) and she’s falling in love with him (who wouldn’t?), and the townsfolk are losing patience with him, as one or two others lose their heads, literally. And it’s filmed with a slightly blue tinge to give it even more of a gloomy, macabre look. It basically has everything – great cast, great direction, great script, and a big spider.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

You’ve got to love Christopher Lee for this movie, not just because he’s the definitive Count (sorry, Bela), but also because he steadfastly refused to say any of the lines given to him – as he thought Bram Stoker would never have written them. It’s Christopher Lee’s second Hammer Dracula, and bears all of the hallmarks of the studio – filmed in that nice bright Eastman colour, with Bernard Robinson’s grand, lush sets and James Bernard’s cracking score. The plot is also very typical – four travellers in Transylvania end up at the mysterious castle that the locals (all from the West Country, it seems) refuse to acknowledge. It is, of course, Old Pointy Tooth’s castle, and when they’ve been told they can stay for dinner, they’re clearly misreading the signals. One throat-slitting and smoky transformation later, Drac’s out of his coffin and ready to sink his fangs into Barbara Shelley – you can’t dispute the man’s taste. But one fellow gets away and brings back a priest to sort out Dracula once and for all, at least until the next sequel that Hammer did. To my mind, it’s the best film Hammer ever did – and if you presume yourself to be a fan of Hammer, and haven’t seen it, then you can get out of my blog right now, thank you.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Often considered the best British horror film, The Wicker Man is certainly different in horror terms. Nothing supernatural, a soundtrack of folk music, and religious ideology that’s more about pleasing the old gods than summoning Satan. Rowan Morrison has apparently gone missing from the Scottish island of Summerisle, and Edward Woodward is the copper sent from the mainland to find her. But what he finds is the locals denying her very existence, despite everything pointing to the fact that she does, or has existed. His inner Christian is further enraged by the pagan rituals, often involving sex or nudity, that prevail on the island. The seemingly affable Lord Summerisle, a part written for Christopher Lee, allows him the wherewithal to continue his investigations, but…no, I’m not going to spoil it. Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee are excellent, and we have Ingrid Pitt (mmmmm) and Britt Ekland (mmmmm) too. The music is beautiful, being all folky and appearing out of place in such a sinister plot. And that final scene is just frabjous – The Wicker Man in full glory, the setting sun, and the Summerisle citizens singing joyously.

And if, before reading this, you thought I was on about a Nicholas Cage film of the same name, get the Hell out of my internet.

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North East Skinny Dip 2013

August 3, 2013 at 7:59 pm (Stuff I do) (, , )

Seeing as last year’s event was so much fun, I’ve once again signed up to do the fabulous North East Skinny Dip!

This year, the event takes place on Sunday September 21st at sunrise, at the beautiful Druridge Bay in Northumberland.

This time around I can attest to how fantastic an experience it is. The water wasn’t particularly cold, and believe me, you don’t have to worry about anyone judging your imperfect body – if one thing is obvious at these events, it’s that nobody is perfect. It’s all about having some free-spirited fun, and raising some cash for charity.

Wanna join us? If so, here’s the registration page. It only costs a £10 to register.

If you don’t quite think you have the bottle, but still want to support the excellent mental health charity Mind, then here’s the oversized attention-seeking link:

SPONSOR US HERE!!!!!!!

Go on, you only live once.

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Flipping Genders

July 23, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Politics) (, , , )

So first, this excellent article on gender-flipping.

Secondly, a comment on it (or on part of it) from a male friend (entirly copied and pasted, his errors):

Really!? Are you surprised that male super heros are drawn to me masculine and powerful? While female super heros are shown to be sexy and agile?
There just exaggerated traits of the generic male and female traits, men and woman are NOT equal, they both have strengths that lie in different places. Other wise the Olympics would not need to spilt the two sexs up.
Yes there is a minority of ppl that are mixed up, girl in mans body or what ever you want to refer to it as, and that’s fine. But it does not mean that we should draw all the super heros as homo guys and masculine females.

I had a lot to counter this with, so I thought a blog would be better. Here goes.

Firstly, no, I’m not surprised – for reasons I’ll come to later.

Secondly, we’re talking about superheroes. The concept of unequal gender strength went out of the window at the start. Put Supergirl up against Arnie in a weightlifting contest, I’m fairly sure that only a Kryptonite-spiked protein shake is going to prevent a female winner there.

Thirdly, even ignoring its clear indelicacy, the final sentence really misses the point. Because the point of this whole article, not just the bits about superheroes, is that flipping the genders in this way can illustrate a very good point. It’s about showing a logical fallacy by reversing something very familiar, so that in the unfamiliar form, we can see it better for what it is. Really, it’s no different from Orwell showing what problems might lie in revolutionary socialism by turning the Soviet Union into an animal farm.

The superhero part of the article demonstrates this sort of reversal allegory very well. It highlights just how much female superheroes seem to have two functions – not just fighting the forces of evil, but looking damn hot as well. The fellas, meanwhile, need only be concerned with fighting the baddies. This is the point – to highlight both the gender imbalance and the subliminal women-are-only-valid-when-they’re-hot message.

To go back to my first point, the imbalance isn’t suprising because it has been this way in the superhero world for years. Superman gets to cover his legs up, whereas Supergirl has a very short skirt which, really, cannot allow for much modesty when taking off for a quick fly. The Hulk is stocky and unlikely to get a job as an underwear model, whereas She-Hulk is leggy, with fantastic hair and improbable breasts. Reed Richards is allowed a flash of white hair; his better half has to look like she’s just walked out of her teens. The 1983 Spider-Woman annual sees her alter-ego getting out of the shower with only a small towel to cover her front – when would we see the same of Peter Parker? And later in the annual when she’s fighting the Hulk, you seem to see more of her arse than her face. Surely a female superhero should be written and drawn to show a powerful woman, not a powerful woman who, it is suggested, is only any good because she has curves in all of the regulatory places?

It’s an imbalance that could very much do with redressing. But in closing, a word to my friend: A woman not being actively sexy does not equal masculine. A man being feminine does not equal homosexual. And a person with trans- feelings does not equal mixed up. Whatever points you might have in arguments on such topics, such equations are never going to win many admirers.

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Apples on Tour – South Manchester

May 19, 2013 at 11:31 pm (Apples on Tour, Poetry, Theatre) (, , , , , , )

“What?” I hear you ask. “Manchester? For a holiday? Isn’t that where it always rains?” Point 1, it’s England, and that pretty much applies everywhere. Point 2, so what? Not for me the holiday lying on a beach getting a tan, no. There are more things under the sun than, er, the sun, and if I want to find them in Manchester, that’s what I’m gonna do. Deal with it.

So yeah, the real purpose of the visit was to see the latest show by the Didsbury Players, formerly the Celesta Players – a community theatre group based in the leafy Manchester suburb of Didsbury. But since it’s pointless going all that way just for a night, Nige and I decided to make a weekend of it, and cram whatever other entertainment in that we could. In this endeavour, one must say we’ve succeeded.

Friday morning saw us jump in the Yaris and head down the A1. Yep, I’d have preferred an environmentally-friendly train, but thanks to our “greenest government ever”, that would have cost us about four times as much, illogically. But there are plus points to this approach, and one was that we could have a quick stop-off at Wetherby for some lunch, before tackling the Pennines. The views in the cross-country drive are pretty good too, it’s just a shame that driving means you have to appreciate the view of HGVs more than the countryside.

But we got to the hotel in good time. We were more or less inbetween two suburbs of grand foliage – Didsbury and Chorlton-cum-Hardy, one of those great weird place names that’s up there with Leighton Buzzard, Ashby-de-la-Zouche and Piddle-in-the-Hole. By coincidence, it was the weekend of the Chorlton Arts Festival, so we headed along there in the hope of securing tickets for a play, stopping at the Woodstock Arms on the way – lovely pint of Pendle Witches’ Brew. The play tickets had sold out, so instead we chose to go to a poetry event – Allison McVety, a poet who I’d not heard of, was giving a reading at a meeting of the Manky Poets, a local poetry recital group. Her poems were great to listen to, covering all manner of topics, light and dark. Equally interesting were her explanations of how she was inspired to create the poems – some food for thought for my own poetry there.

On Saturday we headed into central Manchester, as nothing was going to stop me from seeing the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the City Gallery, not even death. Thankfully such an occurrence did not need overcoming. We got there via a pub called The Bank, where the wild boar burger was brilliant. Then off to the gallery, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Pre-Raphaelite collection was represented by the full Brotherhood – Millais, Hunt and Rosetti, as well as Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, and both Leightons, among others. Also there was Alma-Tadema (what a beautiful painting Silver Favourites is), Canaletto, Sargent, Sandys and plenty more. An excellent venue if you like British art.

A visit to the Museum of Science and Industry was next – all machinery great and small, old and new, comprised the exhibits – mostly with a Lancashire flavour, as you might expect. Looms, planes, trains, bloody huge computers, all sorts of things to excite the discerning science nerd.

But after that, the reason for the visit – off to Didsbury Cricket Club for the show. Yup, these guys play out of a cricket club – the function room, to be precise. One of the fascinating things about this group is how little they have to work with, and how much they make of it. Their show last year took up about half of the room. This year, a quarter – basically the room’s dancefloor. There are only two ways to enter or exit the stage, and the room has nowhere to hang lights, so the group is limited in those respects. But we were nonetheless treated to two funny, entertaining plays – Stars in their Eyes, a short one about a group of astronomers waiting for (and managing to miss) the transit of Venus, and a longer one, Forte!, a story of a small musical instrument shop that manages to give their big corporate competitor the comeuppance they deserve. The latter play required multiple sets, a lot of props and entrances and exits – which must surely be difficult to arrange on such a small stage. But they managed this very well, which is testament to the group’s resourcefulness. After the show, it was off to the Didsbury arms to sample the Hobgoblin on draft. Niiiiiice.

Sunday morning took us to Stockport, that lovely tropical paradise. The Crown pub was the first port of call, and on entering, i could see why I’d heard of its name in legends. Thirteen ale taps I counted, and I had a go of the Atlantic Jade, which proved a wise choice. We were joined by Jennie and James from the Didsbury Players, and went off to visit the Hat Museum – Stockport having once been a capital of millinery. The lowest floor was full of all sorts of crazy hat-making machinery, and the middle floor just full of hats – more than enough to satifsy a former member of the National Hat Society.

After a cup of tea at Jennie and James’s, it was time to return home, where this humble travelog is now being written. I’m knackered, but pleased that I’ve had around 48 hours in one of the most cultured cities I know, and have been able to fit so much culture-vultury in. Huzzah.

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Paulo di Canio…and Feminism?

April 24, 2013 at 7:24 pm (Politics, Stuff I do, Uncategorized) (, , , , )

The whole fascism furore surrounding Paolo di Canio had kind of died down now, partly because of his public statement that he isn’t fascist (and we’ll all have our own opinions on that), and partly because Sunderland are now winning games, so that obviously makes everything okay. But this weekend, a (female) friend of mine voiced a very interesting opinion on the subject that’s made me see the whole thing from quite a different angle.

But before I treat you to these words of wisdom, let’s be clear what we mean by fascism: In simple terms, it’s an authoritarian ideology that puts the state and its ruling class at the top of society. Anyone not congruent with that is treated as an inferior, even subhuman. That might be on the basis of religion, race, sex, sexuality, hair colour, political preference or favourite type of cheese. Often, it’ll be a mix of them. But at its heart, it’s an ideology that excludes people simply because they’re different to others in some way.

Happy with that? Good. Now, I’m going to have to paraphrase what my friend said, mostly because at the time of this discussion, I must admit that I’d made a useful contribution to Sunderland’s pub trade. But the basic gist of her statement was, “Why should I care if di Canio is fascist, when the sport is exclusionist anyway?”

Football? Exclusionist? Ha’way, we have all sorts of peope in the Beautiful Game, at the top level, don’t we? All faiths, all races, most likely all sexualities, all genders, all…hang on.

Yup, that’s something perfectly obvious when you think about it, but for some reason, it never occurred to me. Gotta love that Y-chromosome. Football is almost entirely exclusionist (at least at what you might call its upper echelons) when it comes to women. Granted, we have the odd woman in the boardroom (as indeed Sunderland do), we have assistant referee Sian Massey, and we have the odd female TV presenter, but beyond that – no female players, managers, coaches, referees, even physios, from what I can tell (correct me if I’m wrong, please). I can even recall a situation at university, where the Students’ Union wanted to arrange a charity football match of mixed-sex teams. But apparently, the referee’s union (or whomever) refused to send someone to a mixed-sex match. I can’t think of a practical reason why that might be so – if you can, please educate me.

Armed with this knowledge, it seems odd that we might find it distasteful if a manager is appointed who might not have a liking for some minority group, when the game itself excludes about 50% of the population to start with. And here’s the odd thing: If a manager were to be appointed to a Premier League team, and that person were to publically state, say, that Muslims should not be allowed to play football, but women should, he’d be castigated by all and sundry, despite his stance being more inclusive than the game is currently.

The situation isn’t going to stop me enjoying football by any means. But it’ll make me feel a bit hypocritical if I vent spleen at one form of discrimination, while tolerating another more widespread one. To enjoy the game I may have to tolerate both – in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to – but at least I know I have to tolerate something, rather than unconsciously accepting it as the status quo.

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Night of the Living Chefs

March 16, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Apples on Tour, Cynicism) (, , )

I often get asked to recount this story, whenever somebody finds out that something odd once happened involving a roundabout, men in chef’s outfits, and Ireland. And I’m happy to recount it, but I always have to give my audience a disclaimer: “You really had to be there”. However, this never cools their ardour for the story, and by the end of the tale, they’re covered in tumbleweed. So to avoid any more such unpleasantness, I’ll lay the tale before you all now.

But I’ll say it again: You had to be there. I can take no further responsibility. You’re free to leave now, and I won’t hold it at all against you.

You HAVE been warned. So, are you sitting comfortably?

Night of the Living Chefs

That fateful Thursday in 2001, none of us could have predicted what would happen. We were simply four young people on a weekend away, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, just hoping to have a good time. But we were completely unaware of what fate was to throw at us.

We’d taken a morning flight from Teesside to Dublin. It was a chilly, overcast day, but thankfully free of rain. We had landed in Dublin sometime around noon, and had hung around the city centre for a while until we were able to check into our hotel.

The Travelodge at Castleknock, about 5 miles outside of Dublin. How we still shiver at the memories.

It was a comfortable place, in truth, and cheap enough, that being the hallmark of the Travelodge. But this isn’t really about the hotel. It’s about THAT roundabout, the one where the M50 intersects with the N3. A roundabout that would forever be etched upon our minds, where the nightmare of men in chef’s outifts would eternally haunt us.

Having checked in at the hotel, we went to our rooms. Myself and Nigel in one (twin room, thank you), and Kirsty and Alison in the other. The girls decided to have a bit of a lie-down, But Nige and I, being young gentlemen in search of a good time, decided to venture forth to seek the pubs. We left the hotel, and headed for civilisation on the other side of the roundabout.

And that’s when I saw the first one.

Standing in the grassed area in the middle of the roundabout, by himself, with apparently no purpose, was a man in a chef’s outfit.

He was just standing there, looking around. Why, I wondered to myself, would a lone man, in a chef’s outfit, be standing in the middle of a roundabout on a busy road?

It sent shivers down my spine. And then I saw the second one.

The second man, also in a chef’s outfit. Also just looking around, apparently without purpose. No other obvious connection to the first man – but eerily, both dressed in the same style. Both doing nothing, but with a sense of foreboding. Like those Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. Only in chef’s outfits.

Compose yourself, I told myself. This is Ireland. Maybe it’s just one of those things they do, like Gaelic football, or poteen, or taking the Pope seriously. As we wandered toward the roundabout, to cross the road, I saw the third.

The third man, in a chef’s outfit. But he was unlike the other two. He was carrying a tray. A silver tray. With nothing upon it. What’s more, he wasn’t simply standing and looking around. He was walking. Walking toward the second man. Walking, and pointing at him. And saying something, possibly in some long-forgotten chthonic language; the language of demons. Or maybe just English.

Well, this was more than my mind could handle. I vowed to myself that nothing here could really hurt me, like Danny in The Shining. With great speed, Nigel and I crossed the busy road, avoiding these inhuman monsters, and headed for the nearest pub, stopping only to inquire of a couple of street urchins as to exactly where the nearest pub was.

Reaching the safety of this homely tavern, we refreshed our spirits with some fine local beverages, until we were ready to return to the hotel – fully aware that those men in chef’s outfits would be there. But we couldn’t let that stop us. Those Gourmets of Darkness could, at any moment, bear down upon the hotel in which our friends were innocently sleeping. We were their only hope. We had to return, and keep them safe from a terrible fate.

We left the tavern, the owner having provided us with rosary beads and crucifixes to protect us from any evil we might encounter. Our hearts thumping like a Citroën’s engine in the wrong gear, we advanced toward the roundabout. And there they were, the three of them, standing in the middle of the roundabout, a veritable hive of demonic activity. From a hatch in a van they were taking cups. And passing them to drivers. No doubt goblets of some vile potion, made to induce madness on humanity, whereupon these Epicurean demons would execute some infernal plan to take over God’s green Earth.

I had to do something. I had wooden stakes, silver bullets and garlic bulbs, which had been sent to me in haste by my old university lecturer, Van Helsing of Amsterdam. One must admire the speed of the postal service. With the courage of Hercules, I strode toward one demon, and in a tremulous voice, asked him what his business among humanity was.

Basically, they were handing out free pancakes to motorists as a promotion. So we got one each, and took some back for the lasses as well.

So…yeah.

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To Think upon Thy Words

January 8, 2013 at 3:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Free speech is an inalienable human right. But it is not a duty. We have the right to say what we want, but it is always worth remembering that we can choose to use speech responsibly. Sometimes it might be more expedient to say nothing in a given situation; in others, it might be wise for us to choose our words correctly – particularly if we risk offending people.

This is known variously as tact, diplomacy, or political correctness. The latter is a phrase that we often love to complain about, when we hear about some jobsworth who has banned something for fear of insulting someone who probably doesn’t care. These are extreme examples, but political correctness is something that a lot of people take seriously, becuase they’re consciencious enough people to not wish to offend people. So I’m not about to talk about political correctness gone mad, more political correctness in its more sane form.

But it’s a minefield, this PC lark. It’s difficult to know what will offend other people. Even, it seems, when a term seems perfectly serviceable. As I found out this week, and the purpose of this post is to explore such a problem.

In a crossword yesterday, the word “handicapped” was used. It was a golfing reference, but the clue using it attempted to misdirect the solver by suggesting it to be a reference to disability. In the discussion that followed on a crossword blog, it was noted that “handicapped” is considered to be an offensive term.

That surprised me. A quick consultation of the Delphic Oracle (Chambers Dictionary) makes no mention of the word being offensive or vulgar. Among its definitions are “Any physical, mental or social disability”. That’s how I’d always seen the word in that sense, and the definition doesn’t point toward any intent to offend.

But then I was presented with this link to a BBC poll to find words considered offensive by the disabled community. In short, here are the top ten:

1. Retard
2. Spastic
3. Window-licker
4. Mong
5. Special
6. Brave
7. Cripple
8. Psycho
9. Handicapped
10. Wheelchair-bound

Now, the inclusion of some of these is perfectly understandable. 3, 4, and 8 are phrases that, as far as I know, have never been part of medical parlance and have only ever been used offensively. 1, 2 and 7 probably have been medical terms in the past, but due to increased use as offensive terms, have become almost exclusively that. And it’s easy to see how 5 and 6 could be considered patronising.

However, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard 9 or 10 to be used offensively. They seem to be phrases that correctly describe a situation. No more or less than “disabled” does. But, according to the BBC poll, it’s more about perceived connotations to the word – “handicapped”, although semantically no different to “disabled”, appears to have greater stigma attached to it. Some see “handicapped” as offensive as “nigger” – even though the latter has never had a valid, unoffensive, non-pejorative sense.

So this causes a problem for the person who wants to be PC. If a phrase is semantically accurate, should we allow ourselves to be bound by a stigma that might only be seen by certain people, or should we feel free to use such a term? If another person, for whatever reason, thinks that such an accurate term has connotations they don’t like, it is our problem? After all, we can’t assume that ALL people will have the same perceptions. In discussion of the crossword clue, one disabled man was happy to refer to himself as handicapped, and didn’t mind if others followed suit. Nor did he care much for disabled people who disliked the word. He felt the word was a correct description of his situation.

I think that the answer for a PC-wannabe is simple. If you want to remain unoffensive, at least try to keep the tone of what you say unoffensive. That way, even if a word creeps into your discourse that you didn’t realise had any stigma attached, it’s easier to see that no offence has been intended. If you are aware of that a phrase might raise eyebrows, it has to be up to your own judgement, based upon the conext, the intent and the target audience. In principle, I see no problem with using a valid word that precisely defines something. But you might. And to force a rule in this situation would be Linguistic Nazism, and I’ll have to truck with that.

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