Saturday, 11 November 2017

Fight fire with satire: Wipers Times and Savage Ink

In the run up to Remembrance Day I have been to the theatre and the People's History Museum. Both the play and the exhibition look at the role of satire in helping us face scary circumstances and to speak truth to power.

Wipers Times - Theatre Show

The Wipers Times was a newspaper created by Captain Fred Roberts and his battalion during the First World War produced in the trenches themselves. The 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters faced some very serious scenes they were present at Ypres and the Somme with Captain Fred decorated with the military cross for bravery.  They were under no illusions about the awful nature of war, 'Most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind'. This is echoed in their humour, one ad read, ‘Are you a victim to optimism? you sometimes think the war will end within the next twelve months? you consider or leaders are competent?'.

Copyright: The Wipers Times

There are many responses to war - fear it, glamorize it, or satirize it. Drawing on the traditions of both music hall - Hind and berg: sword swallowers and nail eaters at the Cloth Hall - 'the best ventilated hall in the town' (it was a ruin); and high-literature (Kipling, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle) they punned their way to hope right in the midst of battle.  They played close to the wire when it came to respected war correspondents both Hilaire Belloc and Beach Thomas's names are spoonerised and spoof articles written to illustrate just how far from reality their articles had departed. The bureaucrats of the war machine also do not get off lightly - Roberts took their regular request to 'up the offensive' as a rallying cry for the paper, 'Are we as offensive as we might be?'.

The stage show written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman did a good job of translating a newspaper into a stage show; the show tunes and adverts translate particularly well. They also added extra context showing the war leaders, people at home and the impact of war on the veterans future careers all of which I thought was helpful. Although it was an entertaining show it was also a 'thinker'. I was very moved by the performance of 'To My Chum' a poem which featured in the print version of Wipers Times from the pen of a private in the trenches, reproduced in part here:

Confessions of an alcohol slave advert. Copyright: The Wipers Times

 'We’ve shared what shelter could be had
The same crump hole
when the whizz-bangs shrieked;
The same old billet that always leaked,
 And now – you’ve stopped one.'

It is precise, concise poetry that cuts to the heart of a man grieving his friend.

To face fear head on and to laugh seems such an appropriate response, and the show a great way to remember in all its complexity.

Savage Ink - A temporary exhibition at PHM

The Savage Ink exhibition illustrates the rich tradition that Wipers Times drew on; showcasing satirical cartoons from the 18th century onward including several works by Hogarth, Gillray and Fluck drawing right up to the present day cartoons criticising the Labour cabinet views on Trident.

Gillray, Substitutes for Bread

One of the most interesting cartoons is Gillray's, 'Substitutes for Bread' (1795) which shows Pitt, his Chancellor Loughborough and other ministers tucking into many lavish substitutes for bread; venison, turtle soup, champagne whilst the people outside starve. In 1795 the UK was at war with France and was running out of both money and commodities. The Board of Agriculture sent out pamphlets suggesting people substitute their expensive tastes for white bread with mixed grain loaves and eat more meat and fish instead, in a bid to help the war effort. This is all rather akin to Marie Antoinette's, 'Qu'ils mangent de la brioche' and the unrealistic expectations of those in power on those living with the reality of their decisions.

It seems if you had money in 1795 you could enjoy pretty much anything you liked, and the poor paid the price for war; nothing changes does it.

This remembrance day I pray, with Captain Fred and Gillray, never again.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

5 surprising things about America

This year I went on a springtime trip to California; my first ever trip to the USA here are my top five surprising things.

(It is so bright here!)

1. No kettles, anywhere! 
I suppose given the events of 1773 it is not as much of a surprise but people don't own kettles, electric or hob based! If you want a cup of tea you've to risk an urn, or a pod-machine (!), or scalding yourself boiling water in a saucepan all in a bid for a cup of tea.

2. People still sign 'the check'
This blew my mind, people always say that America is the future but this felt like stepping in a time machine to the 90's! Chip and pin in the UK is frustrating (in comparison to contactless) but can you imagine signing every receipt? I can just about remember supermarket shopping with my Mum where she used to sign for our shopping but as an adult on my own account, nope. Also calculating tax, in the UK tax is almost always included in the price (unless you're buying wholesale or something). But trying to calculate what the final price would be for even small items was a real headache. A perk though is that sometimes people in the shops still expect to pack your shopping, another thing I can only just about remember from childhood.

(Shopping for spices and target preparing for St Patricks Day)

3. Bikes on the front of buses
I was quietly minding my own business (getting over the sweet/savoury thing, see below) in Berkeley when a Greyhound bus passed the window. Lo and behold! The bus had someone's bike on the front! Instead of trying to fit the push-bike in the hold or in the cabin space of the bus they just stick it on the front. This is actually quite an ingenious idea, but I'd never even thought of it before.

4. Icing sugar and bacon on the same plate; and no-one is bothered.
I knew before I went that there was a bit of a laissez-faire attitude towards sweet and savoury on a plate over the pond. Even a neanderthal like me has experienced pancakes with bacon and maple syrup and been won round to a little sweetness. I had, however, understimated the extent of the combination. One morning my friend had a fry up; to all intents and purposes it was a full English breakfast, except it came with toast coated in icing sugar - and no-one was suprised or bothered by that except me.

(Look at the icing sugar on that!)

5. Windscreen cleaners at petrol stations
I was reminded of this when Mayim Bialik did a video in May (3:53); in California. at least. one of the things people do in petrol stations is clean their windows using wiper blades which are offered free of charge. It just threw me a little.

There were of course many other things people had told me that I didn't think could be true - like even fruit and veg is giant sized there, and how no-one walks anywhere; and how in a shorter distance than London to Durham I could go from 25 degree heat to treading through snow overnight. These were just the 5 unexpected things.

Monday, 14 August 2017

DUNKIRK: A review

I recognise I'm pretty late to this party but last week I saw Dunkirk and regardless of anything else it was a lesson in cinematography.


I'll admit I was affected by location and circumstance. The day before I had made that same journey, to Dunkirk and then on to Paris with my 10 year old godson, albeit we went under, not over the ocean. Travelling on the metro we saw signs for the film with its French spelling (Dunkerque) and I thought about how a French director or screenwriter might have written a slightly different film.

I went to see the film when I was staying with my parents, at a budget friendly, no frills cinema on Canvey Island. Driving to and from the cinema I drove along that same coastline that had sent the little fishing boats from Leigh on Sea to their heroic adventure; the story of the Dunkirk flotilla is written into our local story. Both the French and Essex experiences helped a long-distant event feel very present to me.

And that's to say nothing of the cinematography. There are some political aspects to this film which I will come around to, but first I want to tell you about the incredible creativity that was poured out on this highly stylised film quite so effectively.

Blue and Grey

Colour and musical tone were used to great effect. Everything was different shades of blue and grey for a long time; despair was played out in monochrome monotony - the sea and sky became indistinguishable at the horizon and I really believed like the men at sea that maybe help was never coming. This was echoed in Hans Zimmer's score - all minor chords and constant suspense. Christopher Nolan is well known for his use of the Shepard tone - its a corkscrew effect that makes you feel as if the music is constantly climbing and it sets your teeth on edge - he uses it to good effect in this film.

But when the fleet of ships arrive all of this changes the little boat is full of colour - the sailor's jumper, the hull of the boat, the women on the other ships - warm reds and oranges explode onto the screen in this triumph of hope. This glory is reflected in the music which changes to major and we get this brief reprieve from the Shepard Tone. This is epitomised in the final flight of Farrier to Elgar's Nimrod - all major chords and full colour; hope for the soldiers and for us.

Our glorious past?

Whilst the majority of the film feels hopeless and disastrous and not at all glamorous I would define it as a patriotic film. Through thoroughly limited dialogue a large emphasis is put on the role of 'home', and putting Churchill's words into the mouth of an ordinary soldier was very effective at underlining the sacrifice of 'the few'. It did make every body out to be heroes - Nolan shows some awareness of this in the heroic write up of George, killed by his own side but declared a war hero in the paper, but the rest of the film argues against this. Commander Bolton chooses to 'wait for the French' at the end of the film instead of getting the boat home, he chooses certain death; although Dad pointed out to me this is a charming nod to the 50's films I felt it was a bit dramatic.

The issue I take with this film is the effect it had on me, I left the cinema thinking, 'you know what we need? A jolly good war!'. And that scares me because I am by nature a fairly peaceful soul; somebody more prone to conflict would be easily fired up by the narrative.

Like any story you do have to simplify the facts for the sake of a good story, but I agree with Sharmal that there was significant white-washing in this film - and the featured token person of colour was tokenism exemplified. Although the stance taken by Nolan on this was inline with the narrative we are told in schools there was a real opportunity here to tell less known stories; it is a shame that opportunity was missed.

In summary this is a powerful piece of cinema, expertly composed, that will rightly win many awards; entertainment does not always have to be educational - and it certainly was an education in cinematography - but I do wish we had been told a story of somebody new that recognised the complexity of war, rather than glorification of the armed forces.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Middle-class, middle-aged bank holidays: Renishaw Hall and Derbyshire

Well folks its true, being suspiciously close to being both middle-class and middle-age I spent my last Bank Holiday in the only way I know how: visiting a country pile!

Edith Sidwell's birthplace
Renishaw Hall was built in 1625 and is still a family home today. Some of its most famous inhabitants were the Sitwell trio - Edith, Sacheverell and Osbert - they grew up there in the late 19th century. They were an eccentric bunch but they helped to cultivate lots of famous artists you may have heard of; Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, and William Walton. You can see the remnants of these relationships in their special museum; in an excerpt from one of Walton's letters the handwriting looks rather like my Dad's!

The house itself is still a family home and only open on Fridays during the Summer season. This is no problem though if the weather is good as the courtyard and museum are open and so are the incredible gardens. We saw a meadow rammed with bluebells, a rose-covered walkway and lots of tulips in the walled gardens. Private houses are better than National Trust properties in that they offer you that extra layer of liberty; there was very little signage to moderate and interfere with your experience of the property especially around the lake. We spent at least 3 hours here just enjoying the gardens and surrounding area, thoroughly recommend.

Bakewell (tarts and puddings)
A fortnight ago my sister and I spent the afternoon in Bakewell. The town lent its name to the famous tart which today is presented coated in icing and a glacé cherry on top. I, however, am always looking for the most authentic experience possible and so we sought out an original bakewell pudding. There are at least three wooden-beamed establishments selling this Victorian dish; we decided to purchase a small pudding to share (top left) and two more modern tart slices (middle right) - but not with icing or a cherry on the top. As you might expect the pudding is a more dense dessert and the almonds were chopped more roughly than its contemporary equivalent but both tasted pretty good.

Looking beyond the puddings, if possible, Bakewell is a small town of some beauty with local cheeses and a farm store. It also plenty of big brand stores you'd expect in a national park: Boots, Fatface etc. and we found a great cafe attached to a book shop; tea and new books, my favourite!

Tideswell: Cathedral in the Peak
When driving along the A623 I kept seeing signs for 'Tideswell and Cathedral in the Peak'. So, on the way home from Matlock and with a spare half an hour, I turned left to explore the little Derbyshire village. A medieval market town famous for lead mining, Tideswell is now home to about 2000 people. The church of St John the Baptist is at the centre of the village, it is a grade 1 listed building but is not technically a Cathedral. The church is ancient and was a dissenting parish in the thirteenth century. The pew ends and misericords have been carved with some interesting carvings some depicting baptism and confirmation, and this lady doing the monster mash!

Why not explore Derbyshire this May Bank Holiday? It has so much to offer!

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

My adopted city

The people of my adopted city are made of sterner stuff
There is coal within their bones
I think it got there during years of outdoor PE in the rain
That sort of stuff makes you tough

You can laugh at southerners in coats on nights out in January; you’re made of sterner stuff.

The people of my adopted city have tea within their veins.
‘Would you like a brew?’ passes for ‘how are you?’
And its rude to say, no you don’t like hot drinks…

And there’s little that can’t be fixed with a cup of tea and a listening ear.

The people of my adopted city know there is muscle in unity.
Whether you’re United or City; humanist or theist,
If you live on its streets you are family, you are welcome.

You are already in community.

My adopted city of coal, tea and unity
Took a hit yesterday to our most vulnerable spot
It would be easy to retreat to our trenches and forget our coal, tea and unity...

Thankfully Mancunians are made of sterner stuff.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Fathers and Sons (and daughters)

I have been thinking a lot about relationships between parents and their children lately. Originally I thought this was about the fact it was Mother's Day then I took a closer look at the TV series, books and music I'd been listening to and realised lots of people are thinking about family relationships and their impact.

Fathers and Sons: Howard Cunnell
Recently radio 4 featured Cunnell's memoir as their book of the week - you get to hear a 15 minute snippet of the book each day - catch up HERE. Fathers and Sons is about Howard - how his father-less childhood shaped him, and the relationship with his step-daughter as she becomes the man she was always meant to be. I really enjoyed the descriptions early on of him brushing his tom-boy daughter's hair - and referencing Gary Synder's poem 'Axe Handles'. The thought here is that we become like our forebears through example; when you are making a new axe handle you have the example in your hands! Cunnell provides plenty of food for thought about traits that can be inherited through nurture not just genetics.

ROOTS: American miniseries
I have just back from an adventure in America and it has ignited a real interest in American history in me. As such I was thrilled to discover this remake of ROOTS on iPlayer adapted from a book written in the 1970's. The story follows the fortunes of four generations of the same family travelling from Gambia, to North Carolina - whilst it focuses on the impact of slavery also touches on other topics like the American Revolutionary War.

Despite their lives being physically owned by other people Kunta Kinte and his descendants assert their own identity by holding a naming ceremony for newborns under the stars. Kunta was a brave and clever man, always planning a way to escape; he teaches his daughter how to mount horses and how to read, this key skill is passed down from one generation to another for the daughters as much as the sons. We also see the same ingenuity and charisma we saw in Kunta Kinte has been passed all the way down to his grandson George who raises chickens and his great-grandson who becomes a blacksmith and eventually a freeman. Kunta and his descendants may have been enslaved but they continued to live their true identities beneath the surface; and Kunta becomes a mythical model who lends his descendants strength in times of trial.

(Credit: BBC)

Dear Theodosia: Hamilton the Musical
I am obsessed with Hamilton at the moment, particularly the mixtape and particularly this track 'Dear Theodosia'. This song is put in the mouth primarily of Aaron Burr. Burr married a woman 10 years his senior who died 12 years into their marriage, and their only surviving child was named after her, a girl called Theodosia. When Theodosia lost her mother Aaron Burr took on the mantle for ensuring she is educated in the social graces of 18th century society but also the more masculine disciplines of arithmetic, Latin and Greek. In the song Burr is joined by Hamilton singing about his son Philip, both Burr and Hamilton reflect on the absence of father's in their lives and a desire to make an America that will enable them to be successful. Whilst Burr was very present in his daughter's life, Hamilton is portrayed as being absent; despite this his son Philip becomes a man very much in his father's mould - with tragic consequences.

(Credit: Joan Marcus)

And thus concludes my review of three stories of Fathers doing their best by the sons and daughters!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Cartmel: the rebellious parish

One of the great joys of being an adopted Northerner - beside chips and gravy, not needing a mortgage to buy a beer etc. - is the proximity of the wonderful Lake District. A few weeks ago I drove up to Cartmel and Grange-over-Sands for the weekend and had the opportunity to explore the rebellious village. In 2001 Cartmel was deep in the foot-and-mouth crisis - now it is a foodie paradise - rated the 44th best place in the world ahead of the Himalayas!

Getting to Cartmel today is no real trial; you can board a bus, cross the Kent Channel on a train, drive up the M60 and down the A590 - it is two sides of a triangle but you don't feel as if you are taking your life in your hands! It has not always been like this. Before the arrival of the railways getting to Cartmel was very difficult - by land, you took your life in your hands on the trackways through the hills, and by water you faced the treacherous sands.

The Kings Arms: and chariots

Cartmel Priory

The story goes that Cartmel Priory was built on a site between 2 rivers - one flowing north, and one flowing south - at the request of William Marshall in the late twelfth century. Since that time the priory has been swapped between Dioceses, belonging at times to Lancashire, and now to Carlisle. You get the impression that perhaps no-one wanted responsibility for them, that they were troublesome, or certainly a little bit naughty. This strength of will was illustrated during the dissolution of the monasteries when the Cartmel parishioners prevented dissolution by Henry VIII's men claiming the building was the parish church - although this cost them the lives of 4 monks and 10 villagers - they won the case and were left alone.

There is little written evidence for a building that is quite so old - much of the written record was destroyed in the dissolution and is shared between 3 or 4 county libraries. This was a bit frustrating. But they've got some fifteenth century choir stalls and misericords which were pretty to look at.

The priory is well worth a look if you're in the area  - you'll know it by its distinctive twisted spire.

Twisted Spire

Priory Nave

The Gatehouse Bookshop

Cartmel is a 'chocolate-box' village it has country pubs and coffee shops, little cottages - it is picturesque. One of the first things I noticed on driving through the village was the Gatehouse built in 1330 as part of a wall to defend the village and priory from Scottish raiders. Built into this nice piece of architecture is a real wonder - if you know me at all, you will know what I saw that could invoke such awe...a bookshop! They've been selling books there since 1933 and have a stock of over 10,000 books. Did I buy a book?! Is the Pope Catholic?! It is an anthology of poetry printed in 1912 featuring illustrations by William Hyde and it has swallows on the front. That was enough to sell it to me for the princely sum of £8, but it does also contain poems by Shelley, Yeats and Shakespeare and a dedication 'To B' - as if it were meant for me. 'The Open Road' takes its rightful place in my library.

Illustrations by William Hyde
The Open Road

Sticky Toffee Pudding

It might surprise you to learn that this quintessential British pudding is not as old as the hills, it is a product of the 1970's, but it was born in Cumbria and I do believe in eating regional specialties when the occasion arises. Cartmel Sticky Toffee Puddings are sold nationwide in most supermarkets - the Rolls Royce of such puddings - but a trip to the village takes you right to the home of this delicious dessert in the village shop. Needless to say I bought some and devoured it over two evenings.