Shopping and Voting: What Hong Kong’s identity crisis reveals about the state of Britain

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. Available from street vendors or take out a subscription here. 

I’m standing on the high peak of the Dragon’s Back trail, under a warm blue sky, looking back at a strange outcrop of tiny towers in the distance. They are the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island just a bus ride away.

Hong Kong in winter is a bit magic that way. You can get yourself an outsiders’ perspective on its money making commercial heart very quickly – whether with a bus or funicular railway ride or even a steep walk up its hills to stare down at its crowded and ever growing concrete and glass towers.

Small signs of its colonial past endure – A pharmacy chain called Watson’s; double decker trams to Happy Valley. And it is political perspective that Hong Kong offers us all. We’re always being lectured about the liberation of business. In Hong Kong everyone’s an entrepreneur from the market stallholders of Kowloon to the smartly dressed servers in the grand shopping malls.

The fabulous Metro system is a dream of what the London Underground should be like with its spotless stations, and cheap touch card Octopus fare system. I’ve posted a whole gallery on it here. But every Sunday crowds of East Asian nannies and domestic workers gather around Admiralty station to sing songs and share food on their one day off. It’s a reminder of the years of separation the poor endure from their own children as they raise those of the middle classes all over the world.

The mass pro-democracy protests that blocked off the heart of the city’s commercial district for weeks have been cleared away. I watched cleaners snip off each and every tiny yellow ribbon tied to railings. An officially sanctioned protest camp of tents lines the pavement outside government offices; gaffer tape marking their allotted space. They are a token protest, safely defused of any power or threat; just the kind of protest our governments like too.

Plenty of Hong Kong islanders didn’t like the disruption. After all, it hurt business. Why bother about a small thing like the Chinese government carefully starting to pre-approve election candidates?

Hong Kong had industrial glory days, too. In the 1950s and 60s it churned out cheap toys and clothes in hundreds of tiny factories for the West. Now you can find them only in a fascinating exhibit in the city’s excellent heritage museum. Hong Kong doesn’t make things any more. And like Britain its big name banks and legal firms rake in the golden crumbs from servicing the cash flows of regimes and corporations.

Hong Kong’s history museum has reconstructed old shops and whole streets for you to wander through. The museum cinema plays wonderful clips of old movies and tv shows from the days when Hong Kong rivaled Hollywood and Bollywood. Nostalgia is potent here too. But what struck me most was how much of Hong Kong’s energy and dynamism came from it being an island of refugees from the Japanese occupation and the Chinese civil war. Refugees like Ip Man, a Kung Fu master who set up a school where he was to train the young Bruce Lee; Hong Kong’s most famous son. Lee though born in America had begun his career in Hong Kong and was to seek refuge there, in a way, when the enduring racism of Hollywood barred him from the leading roles he deserved. The Hong Kong films he made before his sudden death in 1973 at just 32, turned out to be the catalyst he so desperately needed, thought he never lived to enjoy their success.

You hear a lot more Mandarin than you used to on the Cantonese speaking streets as more and more Chinese from the Republic move into positions of power in Hong Kong firms and it unsettles people who were perhaps used to feeling superior to the old China. Maybe part of UKIP’s appeal is similar.

Now, like Britain, Hong Kong wonders can service industries really sustain it? A surprisingly large number of central malls sell only Western prestige brands – Louis Vuitton, Chanel – for the huge influx of big mainland Chinese spenders. But as economic growth slows down there, too, how long can Hong Kong survive on selling luxury goods they don’t make and that no one really needs? Like Britain with banks and the Gulf regimes, is Hong Kong too dependent on those corporations and undemocratic states it services?

Both Britain and Hong Kong are islands proud of their dynamism, but under the bustle, in need of facing up to the fact that in the end real democracy matters more than anything.

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Get hold of a skull, nutmeg: Leonardo Da Vinci, Bruce Lee and the art of the List

Bruce Lee's achievement list (1969)

Bruce Lee’s career to do list (1969)

This week’s Something Understood for Radio 4 focusses on the human passion for lists. My elder brother, an obsessive list maker, started me off on my first — a film diary with each film dated and rated kept since I was 8.

A recent trip to Hong Kong uncovered the rather poignant career ambition list martial arts star Bruce Lee wrote himself only four years before he died (above). And again and again producer Caroline Hughes and I found ourselves drawn to lists which revealed the self-determination of great minds. The most intriguing item on the list by Da Vinci, which features skulls and a number of investigations into animal anatomy, is the most trivial — nutmeg. What was it for?

Composer Eric Satie’s obsessive-list making takes us into the realm of mental distress.  But much listmaking music was just about joy. When I put out a request via social media for suggestions about songs, I wanted to avoid the obvious – 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, for example – which are just rhymes. Frank Cottrell Boyce was among those who responded with excellent suggestions. Though I thought Ian Drury’s Reasons To Be Cheerful might not pass as it has some rude words in it, it turns out I was wrong. (Listen carefully) So thankyou, Frank.

Also a suggestion was The Divine Comedy’s The Book Lovers, which bring us into the realm of the list that makes us feel inadequate. Not the 10 best books, but the 10 most important books you must read before you die. And yes, I really did only get as far as page 4 of Orientalism by Edward Said, and yes I did finally give it to charity.

There’s a lot of the music from the programme on this Spotify list. And a fair bit more, including The Pillow Book album inspired by the lists of Sei Shonagan – the Japanese courtly lady who gave me the framework for the whole programme. Plus the Half Man Half Biscuit’s 24 Hour Garage People listing some of the exciting crisp and sandwich flavours you can buy in a garage shop, which I really wish we could have got on air. I don’t fancy the idea of a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces, but there is a list within the Spotify list of versions of These Foolish Things. Let’s face it, everything reminds you of him or her when you’re madly in love. Thanks for all the suggestions.

You can hear Something Understood via this link on Radio 4 on Sunday February 8th at 6am and 1130pm and on  iplayer for 30 days after.

My Spotify list: Music from Inventories for Life



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Where the line is: Some case studies in journalism ethics

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 09.59.36

These are links to some of the stories and further reading featured in today’s 1pm Kingston University class.

Callous treatment of victims of crime

The Sun and Rochelle Holness – Distressing speculation about her suffering, supposedly based on police sources

Tabloid blogspot - More on the original Sun story by Mike Sullivan who testified at the Leveson inquiry.

News coverage of murderer and serial rapist John McGrady’s conviction (2006)

Sting operations and fishing operations

Telegraph transcript of undercover reporters’ meeting with Vince Cable

PCC ruling on Daily Telegraph story on Vince Cable

Vince Cable blasts undercover reporters for damaging relationship with constituents

Robert Peston blogpost  on why he leaked Murdoch comments (2010)

Keeping your sources confidential

The Sunday Times jails its source: Spectator post by Nick Cohen on The Sunday Times’ treatment of Vicky Pryce

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Page 3 and pushy feminists


The weird argument being wheeled out over how feminist campaigners somehow made The Sun keep Page 3 just to spite them reminded me of this Radio 4 programme I made about Procrastination and what Martin Luther King had to say about “pushiness” and social change. The layout above  from The Times on Jan 9th featuring a lingerie ad pretending to be news (read the caption) larger than an actual positive news story about a woman, is an interesting reminder of the bigger picture around representation.

Script below from Something Understood – Procastination (broadcast July 2013):

It was to true Christian values that Martin Luther King appealed in challenging the endless excuses from Southern US authorities to put off granting full civil rights to African Americans. Eight white bishops and rabbis in Alabama had urged African Americans not to join Dr King’s peaceful street demonstrations. But to pursue their rights more slowly through the courts and local discussion. In Birmingham jail, arrested for demonstrating, Dr King wrote this letter in response in April 1963.

 EXTRACT: KING’s Letter from Birmingham Jail April 1963

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”

…when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

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Enter the Octopus: The beauty of the Hong Kong metro system

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted.

I wrote a column for The Big Issue magazine (wk of Jan 26th) about what Hong Kong’s history reveals about British identity. You can buy it all this week. One interesting difference is the cost of public transport on the city’s underground system. I fell in love with the 70s SF The Andromeda Strain-rainbow hued futurism of Hong Kong’s magnificent, super efficient underground system on a recent trip. Armed with an Octopus card – a much cheaper and more widely used payment system than London’s Oyster – I took photos of as many stations as I could to capture the visual pleasure of its spread of colour. And here they are.



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The truth about true crime: A crime reporter’s qualms about Serial

I’ve reported on violent crime for 25 years including the OJ Simpson case. I consider it a privilege to cover trials. Strip away the glamour of celebrity and a very large proportion, such as the OJ Simpson case, are about domestic violence. And I’ve never understood why so many people love to watch it as fiction.The prosecutor in the case of Adnan Syed recently said it was a classic domestic violence murder too.  Unsettled by the championing of the NPR podcast Serial by the very highbrow cultural critics who often sneer at ordinary crime on the news I chaired a discussion on Front Row with crime journalist turned novelist Laura Lippman  & Panorama reporter John Sweeney , and wrote this column for The Big Issue magazine.

I have a little BBC News app on my mobile phone. It sends an alert when something big has happened. It doesn’t ping me all day. But if I’ve been asleep, or in a meeting, or watching a film with my family, when I choose to look I am reliably told if something big has happened or resolved: A massacre, a hostage crisis, a political resignation, or a major criminal conviction or charge. From such a trusted source, it’s genuinely helpful to those who want to stay informed.

But what has been the flipside of what the internet has done to news? It’s turned anyone one who wants to be into an investigator, without the responsibility of sourcing or balance. Often I meet people randomly circulating stories that have been trending on social media. Sometime they turn out to be years old; a quirk of the way search engine algorithms work, like the churning of deep oceans. More disturbingly they can be from unverifiable websites, given power just by the act of sharing them, such as that hoax photo purporting to show Osama Bin Laden’s corpse after the 2011 Abbottabad assassination raid.

It was a tweet by a Abbottabad resident, wondering why there were helicopters hovering over his small Pakistani city in the middle of the night, that alerted the world to the raid, when it was rapidly re-tweeted and spread. Such first hand accounts can, through crowd-sourcing, be the most liberating but also unsettling aspect of how social media is changing news and our relationship with the truth.

Take the recent National Public Radio podcast series Serial which become a global phenomenon. The presenter Sarah Koenig wondered whether Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American teenager had been unfairly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend 15 years ago. In a series of musings, that unfolded over real time week by week, she reexamined evidence, chatted for hours on the phone with the man himself, speculated with criminal justice professionals and even interviewed anonymous friends and acquaintances of Syed who thought he was a nice guy. The family of the young woman who was murdered, Hae Min Lee, have refused to take part, and the victim is almost completely missing from this thinking-out-loud exercise. Sometimes Koenig laughed and joked about her frustration over whether she thought Adnan was a psychopathic murderer or innocent. It’s striking how ignorant she is of and “fascinated” by “immigrant” culture. 

Let me let you in on a not-so secret secret. Crime reporters sit around speculating. We do it in court recesses, in bars and in newsrooms. It can be an outlet for some of the appalling things we’ve heard. But we know better than to put it out on the air when real people are affected. I’m not the only reporter unsettled by the reckless self -indulgence of Serial. As veteran US journalist Brian C Jones has blogged: “A developed story like this obligates the reporter to know — before going public — why it’s worthwhile, other than it’s “interesting.” Without an answer, it’s a little like digging up a coffin just to see what’s inside.”

It’s certainly been interesting to see how many of the middle class British fans of Serial sneer at the “depressing” nature of criminal reporting on the news, but love Scandi-noir thrillers despite their sadistic, usually anti-female serial killing plotlines and the jazzy-music layered, soft-toned musings of NPR.

In 25 years of reporting yes I’ve seen some appalling sensationalized crime coverage. But much more often I’ve seen reporters carefully listen to the processes of a trial and present an accurate contemporaneous account of evidence and argument day by day up to conviction or acquittal. Many miscarriages of justice have been uncovered the same way, with careful research and fact checking. I’d urge everyone to sit in on a crown court trial in the public gallery. I always feel great awe for the dignified process of the law.

The thousands of discussion threads that have been spawned by audience fascination with Serial reveal the same human fascination with storytelling and sensation as Dickens’ serialized stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. The longtail of the internet has opened up the possibilities of exploring the minutiae of evidence, of seeing the same transcripts and raw data as the investigators and judges. It’s liberating and I wouldn’t turn the clock back. I certainly admire the way the podcast has engaged a mass audience with the workings of criminal law. But remember these are real human lives. And sometimes it’s only news reporting with its focus on facts that does them justice.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

Further reading

Serial and white reporter privilege (The Awl Nov 2014)


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The White North Has Thy Bones: Ice stations, submarines & the woman who swam the North West Passage

FRANKLIN ICE SHIPHere’s a programme to listen to huddled by the fire, like Jane Eyre with her book of polar wildlife as the wind howls outside. Producer Kevin Dawson came up with the idea of our latest Something Understood  programme about the North. You can listen to the music on the Spotify list I’ve compiled with some atmospheric extras

The icy North of the Arctic was the inspiration and he suggested the title  “The White North has thy bones” from the Tennyson epigraph to the Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin at his memorial in Westminster Abbey. Franklin never returned from a mission to find the North West passage via Canada to Asia. And the North West Passage ended up a constant obsession in our journey. I added some Hammer horror music, images from my lifelong obsession with and haunted dreams about submarines under icebergs – yes, I regularly dream about being trapped under icebergs in a Russian submarine – and we had the makings of this very romantic adventure for these cold midwinter nights.

Still from "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

Still from “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” 1994 (Kenneth Branagh)

The programme features reading from Jane Eyre and Frankenstein and the mysterious, thrilling title poem of Philip Larkin’s first published collection The North Ship, which I still remember reading, mesmerised, cover to cover as a student at exactly this time on the cusp of the year in the winter of 1987-8.

NORTH THE NORTH SHIP LARKINThe James Taylor song, The Frozen Man was inspired by the discovery of a body from Franklin’s voyage in the ice. Jules Verne’s Captain Hatteras – obsessed with retracing Franklin’s steps – offers a glimpse of polar madness. Kevin Dawson had recently interviewed Inupiat tribesmen in the far north of Canada about the impact of whalers and empire on their communities and the interviews he did in the programme are a powerful balance to the imperial drive of western explorers.

Ice station zebra

Ice Station Zebra film poster

I drew on my memories of climbing aboard a German World War Two U-boat captured intact and now on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Though it didn’t make the final edit, this extract from Alistair Maclean’s novel of Ice Station Zebra captures the magical romance of the ice cap:

It was a landscape–if such a bleak, barren, and, featureless desolation could be called a landscape–from another and ancient world, weird and strange and oddly frightening. There were no clouds in the sky, but there were no stars, either: this I could not understand. Low on the southern horizon a milky, misty moon shed its mysterious light over the dark lifelessness of the polar ice cap. Dark, not white. One would have expected moonlit ice to shine and sparkle and glitter with the light of a million crystal chandeliers: but it was dark. The moon was so low in the sky that the dominating color on the ice cap came from the blackness of the long shadows cast by the fantastically ridged and hummocked ice; and where the moon did strike directly, the ice had been so scoured and abraded by the assaults of a thousand ice storms that it had lost almost all its ability to reflect light of any kind.

This ridged and hummocked ice cap had a strange quality of elusiveness, of  impermanence, of evanescence: one moment there, definitively hard and harsh and repellent in its coldly contrasting blacks and whites; the next, ghost-like, blurring coalescing and finally vanishing like a shimmering mirage fading and dying in some ice-bound desert. But this was no trick of the eye or imagination; it was the result of a ground-level ice storm that rose and swirled and subsided at the dictates of an icy wind that was never less than strong and sometimes gusted up to gale force, a wind that drove before it a swirling rushing fog of billions of needle-pointed ice spicules.

Rawlings and I stamped our feet, flailed our arms across our chests, shivered non-stop, took what little shelter we could from the canvas wind-break, rubbed our goggles constantly to keep them clear, and never once, except when the ice spicules drove into our faces, stopped examining every quarter of the horizon.

Somewhere out there on those frozen wastes was a lost and dying group of men whose lives might depend upon so little a thing as the momentary misting-up of our goggles. We stared out over those shifting ice sands until our eyes ached.

But that was all we had for it: just aching eyes. We saw nothing, nothing at all. The ice cap remained empty of all signs of life. Dead.

I was lucky to have interviewed Jude Law about his film Black Sea, who spoke with such passion about the camaraderie that keeps alive a submarine crew under the ice. Our submarine adventure features my favourite track from David Arnold’s magnificent Shaken Not Stirred James Bond remix album, the sonar ping-tinged version of From Russia With Love. Even better than the original, I think.

Lynne Cox

Lynne Cox

But the real star of our programme is the endurance swimmer Lynne Cox, who helped thaw the Cold War with her open water ambition. I’d remembered hearing her interviewed about 20 years ago on the radio about swimming the Bering Strait from Alaska to Russia in the 1980s in just a swim suit and goggles. I traced her thanks to Simon Watts, a colleague on the BBC World Service, and she was generous with her time down the line from her home in California to recount the amazing story of how she did it and why. Ice maiden Jane Eyre narrates our opening, but Lynne Cox is the ice maiden who ends the journey. She’s a remarkable, warm hearted woman.

The White North Has Thy Bones: Something Understood is on Radio 4 Sunday January 6th 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 30 days after.

Further reading/listening

My Spotify list of music from this programme. I’ve added a couple of great Hammer Horror Frankenstein film cues and Vaughan Williams’ music for Scott of the Antarctic, which is of course NOT about the North Pole, just as it’s so wonderfully atmospheric. It’s not in the programme.

Franklin memorial at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

Lynne Cox: Swim that broke Cold War ice curtain (BBC News)

U-505: The German WW2 submarine I described visiting in Chicago


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On the trail of Oliver Cromwell’s Fundamentalist Queen

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use.

I was fortunate to work with two terrific producers,  Simon and Thomas Guerrier on this documentary for Radio 3. I first worked with them on DVD extras for Doctor Who. Simon had penned a Doctor Who audio adventure in which the Doctor meets Oliver Cromwell and as a rather thoughtful historian, with an impressive knowledge of Parliamentary history, came up with the idea of exploring the life of his wife, Elizabeth, about whom so little is known. You can hear me talk about it on the Robert Elms show on BBC London (from 1 hr 9 min in).

Our programmes focusses on the few surviving documents and possessions which offer such tantalising glimpses of her remarkable life.

We spent a day in London at St Giles Cripplegate, a medieval survivor of the Blitz, surrounded by the brutalist towers of the Barbican Centre. A plaque and a bust inside mark Oliver’s connection, but make no mention of his wife. It seems emblematic of her invisible status. In her 40s when she found herself Lady Protectress, how far might it have been a statement to the nation, that she was a Consort Housewife, not a “whorish” Queen like the Stuart court’s Henrietta Maria?

In Ely we stood in Elizabeth’s kitchen, now the Oliver Cromwell House museum; its view of the church graveyard unchanged in 450 years, and it was easy to feel a connection to her simple life as a devout Protestant housewife and mother before the Civil War. The satirical cookbook written as a pamphlet to mock her has ironically become a useful source for the actors who play her for visiting school groups. Her “cheap” local ingredients – asparagus, eels and oysters – are on display. And the gift shop has a good selling line in Mrs Cromwell’s chutneys and jams. One wonders what she’d make of it all.

At Huntingdon’s Cromwell Museum, (where impressive campaigners are fighting closure because of a 100% local authority budget cut) curator John Goldsmith and I analyse the fascinating the collection of family possessions and speculate about what is revealed in  the only official court portrait of her that survives and the beautiful pomadery and a box of surgical instruments that were given as ambassadorial gifts to the Lord Protector’s court and passed down, unused through the Cromwell family to the present day. There is a well organised campaign to save the museum you can support.

The owners of Northborough Manor, once the historical home of her son in law’s family, the Claypoles, kindly invited us in and let us linger in the room where she died. It is strange to think of her seven years of widowhood, with the Protectorate ended and the monarchy restored. Suddenly a humble provincial housewife again. There are all kinds of stories of ghosts and that the walls of the casement will drip blood if England is in danger.  At nearby St Andrew’s Church Elizabeth’s grave is plain and only recently acquired a plaque on the wall. It may have been desecrated during the Restoration. The church warden wonders if Oliver’s decapitated body, which disappeared soon after it was dug up and hung on a gibbet, was secretly brought and buried with her in there. Of course we’d have to open it to find out…

Three letters survive between her and Oliver, written in 1650-1 when he was on military campaigns. Only one is by her and it talks of love and offers very smart political advice for a woman who supposedly kept out politics. Louise Jameson (who incidentally played Leela in Doctor Who) reads it so beautifully.

Elizabeth Bourchier Cromwell’s life can be seen only in glimpses. But what glimpses of a world turned upside.

The Fundamentalist Queen is on Radio 3 on Sunday December 7th at 645pm and iplayer after. It’s a Whistledown production and produced by Simon and Thomas Guerrier

Thanks to Simon and Thomas Guerrier, to all at the museum staff in Ely and Huntingdon, to  Jane and John Trevor at Northborough Manor, St Andrew’s Church and St Giles Cripplegate, and to curators and historians John Goldsmith, Laura Gowing, Peter Gaunt, Patrick Little for being so generous with time and professional insight.

Further reading/listening

The Settling – a Doctor Who audio adventure featuring Oliver Cromwell by Simon Guerrier

 Save the Cromwell Museum organisation

Guerrier Brothers films, including Cleaning Up starring Mark Gatiss

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Body swap Muslims & playing “The Jew”

Had a great discussion with David Baddiel and David Schneider on Front Row this week about why Britain was hosting its first Jewish comedy festival. It  made me revisit  this 2009 news film I made on location at the shoot of Baddiel’s film The Infidel. Lots of interesting observations, notably by Richard Schiff on the American political debate around “good Americans” and whether Obama was a secret Muslim. Plus the challenge for star Omid Djalili of playing Fagin in Oliver! – the character Charles Dickens called “The Jew”. I don’t know how far and in which direction people might say the political discussion around these issues has gone. Certainly it’s interesting to think back to the Allah Made Me Funny tour of American Muslim comedians sponsored by the US Embassy after 9/11 which we mentioned in the Front Row discussion. Anyway, thought it might be interesting to revisit it 5 years on.

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Interstellar’s Heart of Darkness & the Dust Bowl

I like to go to the cinema to escape the gloom of a Sunday evening and what better escape than Interstellar? An epic journey to other worlds. It begins in a rural America devastated by environmental disaster. Real survivors of the Dust Bowl describe their memories of the dust storms, as we watch the dark clouds swirl again. Only the laptops in the farm kitchen tell us that this is some kind of déjà vu.

Our hero leads a mission to find a new planet to colonise to save mankind from a dying earth. NASA has been operating in secret after the government ended its funding. So why do so many people hate Interstellar so much?
Scientist Dr Adam Rutherford told me via Twitter: “It hates humans. That we have not enough faith in engineering or exploration. That NASA is a secret?”

In an early scene former NASA pilot Matthew McConaghey is called into school over his daughter’s thought crime. She’s challenging the rewritten school textbooks that say NASA faked the moon landings as a successful Cold War strategy to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
The self-pitying suggestion that liberals have destroyed America’s pioneering spirit is unsettling, as is the film’s portrayal of the benign power of a “science clergy” led by grandfatherly Michael Caine. Significantly the film comes 3 years after NASA ended the Space Shuttle programme and buried the dreams of manned space flight of a generation of 40 somethings (like director Christopher Nolan).

But the idea that only an escape into space can save us? Major spoiler alert here. As Adam Rutherford observed: “It shows no faith that humankind is even capable of looking after itself without the help of 5th dimensional charity workers. Plus the fact that in conclusion, 7 billion people must die for the species to live.”

Yet for all its flaws Interstellar struck me as a truly humanist film. Notably its view of a godless universe in which people faced with terrible odds have a choice. Some commit acts of evil to survive. But others choose to do the right thing.

On the first planet the crew visit there is a terrifying moment when McConaughey realises those aren’t distant mountains, but a giant tidal wave; hundreds of feet in height and heading straight for them. It reminded me of novelist Joseph Conrad’s words in 1897 when he described the universe as a kind of indifferent organic knitting machine: “It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time space, pain, death corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.”

Conrad was the NASA astronaut of his day. As a sailor at the height of 19th century Empire he saw up close the heart of darkness in the manmade cruelties of slavery and colonialism. But he also saw how the code-bound cameraderie of a crew on a ship; on a mission – could be a powerful human force in the face of indifferent nature.

In 1951 the Dustbowl and the Nazi death camps were recent history and people were living with the new terror of nuclear bombs. Yet they flocked to the cinema to see When Worlds Collide in which, like Interstellar, scientists plan for a lucky few to escape Earth and start again on a new planet. Unlike Interstellar, and indeed the isolated protaganists of Melancholia, it showed emergency meetings at the UN where politicians and scientists agree to build escape ships and choose the passengers by lottery. Mass panic ensues and the latest Hollywood special effects are lavished on showing you the apocalypse.

Perhaps we’ve just got soft. Even Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s magnificent Contact didn’t avoid a wallow in sentimentality with an alien encounter on a tropical beach.
For Ken Burns, whose documentary The Dust Bowl was the source for Interstellar’s survivor interviews there was a lesson about the power not of 5th dimensional charity workers, but responsible democratic government. “Everyone’s heard of the Dust Bowl,” he told The Washington Post recently, “but no one ever really understood its extent, or more importantly that it was a man-made environmental disaster..That’s the key. When you fully begin to accept your own culpability in this, as the people in the Dust Bowl do, they begin to reach out for help and solutions, which in the Dust Bowl, come from the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt.”
The biggest challenge of climate change is getting shortterm-focussed politicans and corporations to take longterm responsibility for saving the planet we’re stuck on. I guess fantasizing about flying away in a rocketship can seem a lot easier.

Further reading/listening

Ken Burns interview on The Roosevelts and his documentary filmmaking Front Row (Oct 2014 BBC R4)

How the Space Shuttle broke my heart and left me on the gantry of broken dreams (Independent 2011)

The development hell of Contact (Entertainment Weekly)

Why Contact is even greater than I thought (Roger Ebert 2011)

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