Leaving home: The 60s and getting out

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The roots of this Sunday’s Something Understood for Radio 4 are in one song – The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and one time: the 1960s.

Over the course of the decade young people found greater opportunity through a huge growth in jobs and state funded education than ever before to break away from the old ways, though the stigmas of class, homosexuality, unmarried pregnancy and strong racial prejudice were still strong. Lynn Reids Bank’s The L Shaped Room and Philip Larkin’s heartbreaking Jill written in the late 1940s reminds us how deep seated such divides still were and the loneliness of the adolescent thrown into a new world. I’m also reminded of George Melly’s lovely parody of Northerners heading to Swinging London, Smashing Time. There’s a scene when Northern girls Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave scan the clearly genuine ads in a newsagents window for flat shares. You’ll see the one that specifies ‘no coloureds'; a reminder of the reality beneath our selective celluloid memories.

Even so for my parents’ generation of Commonwealth immigrants the 50s and 60s was also a remarkable time. Many thousands crossed continents and oceans at an incredibly young age, found work, fell in love and created a new culture in the big cities like London. It’s a period I’ve only recently begun to appreciate fully. We’ve music from the Jamaican born Lord Kitchener (the discovery for me in making this programme) and a Bollywood film song to celebrate the way Britain was changing and a poem by the wonderful Grace Nichols.

Having made a whole documentary about David Bowie and suburban escape, I Dressed Ziggy Stardust, my plan was to end this show with David Bowie’s postcard from those left behind, the song Everyone Says Hi. A fascinating number from the suburban boy who put so much effort into becoming a pop star and getting out. It was lost from the final edit, sadly, but it’s on this spotify list I’ve put together with music from the programme.

Hope you enjoy it.

Something Understood Away Being, Coming Home is on Radio 4 Sunday July 26th at 6am and 1130pm and iplayer after.

 Spotify list of the music played with some extras

Loving The Alien: David Bowie and the ‘burbs 

 

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Celebrity Masterchef: Its part in my downfall

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All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted

More in The Big Issue magazine.

So I was in heat 4 of Celebrity Masterchef 2015. As the hack in the pack alongside actual showbiz celebrities (Dancer Natalie Lowe, presenter Keith Chegwin, actor Scott Maslen and The Wanted singer Tom Parker) it was an irresistible chance to see how the show works and gather some stories. Not least the horror of hearing about the strange dance with the devil that can be a celebrity’s relationship with the tabloid press. And yes, I do love cooking and the feminist history of women’s relationship with the kitchen. I grew up watching all that 70s telly: The Galloping Gourmet, Delia, Nanette Newman’s Fun Food Factory, even the processed 70s “snacks” involving pineapple chunks and white bread that they made on Why Don’t You…? And of course my mum Lalita Ahmed cooking on Pebble Mill At One, (precursor to This Morning) and coming home with photos of her with Sasha Distel and similar sofa sharing luminaries and writing cook books.

I’ve also been collecting cookbooks from the 1950s onwards for years. They include such 60s gems as Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl and (a personal favourite) The New Generation Cook Book, in which recipes are linked by a story about a young female researcher working on a Top of the Pops type TV show.

COOKBOOKSFrom the off it was clear that the Celebrity Masterchef standard and ambition was high. Natalie did everything you’re supposed to do: Be bold and experiment and she knows her grilling.  They were all very sweet and fun to hang out with. Cheggers wizzed up some beautiful desserts and sauces. Tom is very modest but seriously able. Scott is the standout and my bet for a potential winner. And I don’t know having not seen beyond my heat. And I scared myself. Don’t cook with me is all I can say.

In The Big Issue next week you’ll get the full story on my identity crisis as a career woman who’s never sought to be judged on an old style “feminine” skill like cooking.  And as one who attempted the kind of basic Indian home cooking (the chappatis, oh god the chappatis) that if you’re going to cook you should have been cooking for years and mastered before attempting it on national television. And for Christine Hamilton at that. Luckily my mum is abroad for the whole of July. I take the chance to apologise now to the entire nation of Asian mums and aunties for Letting The Side Down.

The best experiences were cooking up the challenges in the studio kitchen with tofu and chocolate or squid. And especially being in the Almeida Restaurant kitchen run by a very impressive young Scottish chef Tommy Boland. I can’t tell you what an adrenalin high that day was. He is a chef to watch.

I think what I really wanted was to be taught elite stuff. There was a pastry chef in the Almeida cooking 3 different desserts and loaves of fresh bread from scratch over the course of the morning. I’d liked to have shadowed him for a day.

Behavioural psychologists can debate the performance/show off element of the Masterchef format that so many men seem to do well at. Looking back I made all the classic errors of some other women I’d watched on previous series:  competent home cooks who aren’t naturally big risk takers and who made the mistake of trying to be safe and cook what they or their families like.  I’m not making excuses. My heart wasn’t in it to give what was needed. But it was great fun and I think Tom and Scott were totally obvious and deserving heat winners.

The recipes

The roasted veg couscous with harissa and feta cheese from episode 7 was adapted from Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking. I make this in big quantities for parties.

That rhubarb ginger sponge pudding of mine (episode 8) is a favourite of all my friends. Give it a try. It’s in the Margaret Costa Four Seasons cookbook.

The chocolate brownies (relay challenge episode 8) were based on the pudding I’ve made more than any other in my life: From Rose Elliott’s Vegetarian Dishes of the World (one of my most beloved and best used cookbooks). I use redcurrants, raisins, or cranberries  instead of the nuts usually stated in such recipes. The berries give a lovely sourness against the sweet dark chocolate. Serve with a big dollop of greek yoghurt or creme fraiche. Eat them warm or if you refrigerate the brownies after they cool, they taste even nicer I think.

Further reading

Big Issue magazine feature about Simone De Beauvoir, feminist Masterchef existentialism and me

My BBC TV Blogpost on How To Survive Celebrity Masterchef (Jul 2nd)– Oh the irony. It’s filled with clues as to the outcome.

 

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On location for HG Wells and the H Bomb

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As well as this documentary I’ve written this feature for BBC Culture about how the Atom Bomb changed our culture and imagination.

And I discuss it with Robert Elms on BBC London here. Listen from 1 hr 39 minutes.

In his 1914 novel The World Set Free, HG Wells imagined bombs that destroy civilization and lead to a new world order. But his “atomic bombs” – a name he conceived – are grenades that keep on exploding.

How did this idea become a reality? Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I set out to explore the strange conjunction of science-fiction and fact that spawned the Bomb as Wells mixed with key scientists and politicians such as Lenin and Churchill. Churchill claimed Wells was solely responsible for the use of aeroplanes and tanks in the First World War. Thanks to Wells, Churchill was also ahead of many in writing about the military potential of nuclear weapons – as he did in his 1924 article for the Pall Mall Gazette, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”

How did HG Wells come up with the idea and the name of the atomic bomb? And what happens when you have an idea too dangerous to contain? Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I have made this Sunday Feature for Radio 3 about the chain reaction of ideas that followed HG Wells’ conception of a small device of infinite power. How a science fiction writer and his friendship with a powerful politician Winston Churchill and the impact of The World Set Free on a brilliant scientist Leo Szilard led to the creation of the A-bomb 30 years later. These are photos taken on location during the making of the programme.

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In London’s Russell Square, with nuclear physicist Dr Elizabeth Cunningham, we retraced the steps of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard who conceived the neutron chain reaction. Amid the bustle and noise of the capital in 1933, he suddenly realised how to exploit the potential of nuclear energy and – because he’d read Wells – the devastating impact it would have. Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill’s Bomb, and Michael Sherborne, author of HG Wells: Another Kind of Life reveal the scientific discoveries of the Edwardian age and how Churchill and Wells imagined their military potential. In his book and subsequent 1936 film Things To Come, Wells had imagined a civilisation-destroying world war carried out by aerial bombardment with a benign new world order eventually resulting. A view that seems deeply unsettling now. But when he died in 1946 he’d been working with Alexander Korda on a planned sequel dealing with the new world of the atomic bomb.

Professor Lisa Jardine reflects on her father Professor Jacob Bronowski’s friendship with Szilard and the terrible moral dilemma of scientists who worked on the bomb programme and witnessed the aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience featured in Knowledge or Certainty – the most famous episode of Bronowski’s landmark television series The Ascent of Man (1973).

And at the Science Museum in London, Churchill’s Scientists reflects on the British made bomb and  the optimism and pessimism cast by Wells’ fiction.

HG And The H Bomb is the Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3 July 5th 645pm and on iPlayer after

And here’s one we made earlier: The Fundamentalist Queen

Further reading

How the Bomb changed everything (BBC Culture feature)

Was HG Wells the first to think of the atom bomb? (BBC News Magazine feature)

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Plankton of the midsummer air

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This week’s Something Understood takes its title Inebriate of the Air, from an Emily Dickinson poem about the insect heavy honeyed thickness of midsummer light and air. And insect and bird sounds (swifts) dominate this programme.

Entomologist Ross Piper helps us pin down the insects that make up the plankton of the air with the aid of a large net in his garden.

SOLAR SYSTEM MAP

I was obsessed as a child with the diagrams of the earth’s rotational spin in the opening pages of my parents’ atlas, marking the solstices and equinoxes. John Agard’s poem about the tropical mixing with the regular colder clime fruits on the supermarket shelves and Purcell’s The Indian Queen – a English baroque reimagining of the heat of the Mayan world – are a bit of fun with the tilting of the axis  at the summer solstice.

There’s a Nordic/Midnight Sun flavour too, with readings from Tove Jansson and Moon music from Bjork.  The best thing about Midsummer in my youth was staying up late and heading out to parties and college balls.  Plus I get to share my love of The Zombies’  cover of Summertime. Totally English. Totally inspired. All the music and some extras are on this Spotify list.

Listen to the progamme here:

Something Understood: Inebriate of the Air produced by Natalie Steed is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday June 21st (6am, 1130pm) and iPlayer for a month after.

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Only Connect: An encounter with Charles Correa and the power of the empty centre

CORREAPUNE

(Jun 17th 2015) I was saddened to hear the news of Charles Correa’s death. An international name who declared he was proudly an Indian architect first, I was fortunate to interview him for Radio 3’s Night Waves in May 2013. You can listen to the interview online here. This is the piece I wrote then about meeting him:

I interviewed Charles Correa, India’s Greatest living architect at RIBA yesterday, which is holding a retrospective of his remarkable career till September 4th. He’s just given them his archive of papers and his story is a fascinating one. He trained at the University of Michigan and MIT in the mid 50s as modernism was starting to bloom. And despite some landmark projects in Boston, Lisbon and Lima, he told journalists at the press preview that he regards himself as an Indian, not an international architect.

CORREAPORTRAIT

We discussed the challenge of slums, city corruption, what he called the “slave ships” of 24 hour call centres to service Western financial services, India’s ambivalent attitude to its own architectural heritage, with its disrepair one of its great shames, and the aspirations and impact of the returning non-resident Indians from the West, as well as of the poor. Part of his legacy is his work in the early 1970s in planning the expansion of Bombay (Navi Mumbai) and building affordable low rise housing that incorporated traditional patterns of communal courtyard living.

The range of cultural reference in his thinking and his work is huge: Hindu, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophy in the “empty centre” concept are at the heart of many of his great designs such as the magnificent Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics University in Pune (top), referencing black holes, and the Big Bang theory in patterns laid out in polished black granite and white marble. He smiled as he remembered shocking some Cambridge dons with his observation that the quadrangles of Oxbridge had been inspired by the Islamic courtyards of places like the Alhambra in southern Spain.

In our conversation he compared his architectural choices to the literary ones of a favourite writer — EM Forster — as a professional pursuing excellence, rather than the equivalent of an airport blockbuster career.

CORREAtubehouse

His Tube House from Ahmedabad in 1961 (above) is breathtaking for its simplicity — using pure design not mechanical engineering as so many supposedly “green” buildings do today — to build a natural cooling airflow through the house. Sadly the original has been pulled down and it is sobering to see how many great ideas developed so long ago did not get taken up more widely.

Modest, charming and well worth a listen. We packed in as much as we could of our conversation into Night Waves last night:

Listen again here

This post was originally written in May 2013

All photos courtesy of RIBA/BBC

Further reading

Seoul: India’s Dream City

 

 

 

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We gotta get out of this place: Small town boys & the curse of pop stardom

“I used to scrump apples in the grounds here here,” says Jim Dale, smiling that boyish smile as we sit for our interview in a grand medieval manor house. Now a country house hotel it used to be a school when he was a boy in the 1940s. It’s a remarkable journey.

JIM DALE CARRY ON SCREAMING

We think of Jim Dale as the young handsome one from the Carry On films, or if you’ve followed his subsequent career, as an award winning Broadway actor notably in Barnum. But before those films he was a huge pop star in the 1950s. And before that, he was a school leaver from Rothwell in Northamptonshire who turned up for work at a rundown, dark and depressing shoe factory in Corby with a view of a brick wall and realised he couldn’t bear it.

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Interviewing Jim Dale in Corby for BBC R4’s Front Row (May 2015)

Dale told the story on the opening night of his one man show in Corby, ahead of its current West End London run. The audience was full of people of his generation, including some who’d known him at school. Though he told the story with humour it was clear what a disheartening experience that first day in the factory must have been. Dale had a passion for comedy, and had already worked in music hall as a child so, remarkably, he quit that very day and went back on the stage.

Overnight before our interview Dale had been reflecting with modesty, on how many in the audience had been those who’d stayed. He felt maybe he shouldn’t have been so frank about how much he hated the factory. I sensed a real awareness – a humility even – in being the one who got away.

The Britain of the 1950s was changing and working class boys had new avenues in music and mass entertainment. In London on the BBC’s new show for teenagers the Six Five Special, Jim Dale got work as a warm up comic. When producers saw he could sing and write his own songs they transformed him into a popstar who got mobbed by screaming teenage girls.

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In Basildon – a postwar new town – 20 years later a different band of talented hopefuls were seeking a similar escape, with Top of The Pops in the place of the Six-Five Special, but offering the same outlet for teenage dreams. When I went to Basildon to cover the General Election count (it was sitting in 2 Ukip target seats) I realised how excited I was to finally have made it to the hometown of Depeche Mode. I can still remember seeing my first picture of them posing by the town sign on the bypass in my issue of Jackie. That’s the power of popstars on teenagers for you. Now the town looks like the wreck of a future world. All those roundabouts and crumbling mosaics on the modernist concrete shopping centres. Like Dale, Dave Gahan could have had an alternative small town life. He failed to get a job as an apprentice fitter with British Gas because he was honest about his juvenile criminal record. But after art college and with his bandmates he was to achieved great fame and success. Like Dale he settled in America where, despite some serious lows in his life along the way – Gahan finds himself a man who built a career out of doing what he loves, still producing acclaimed album after album.

Two days after the General Election I found myself brooding over Basildon and Jim Dale and what had happened to that escape route when I met the former NME journalist Paul Morley, who’d covered those glorious musical years of the late 1970s and early 1980s when Depeche Mode were starting out. Morley felt that pop music had become complacent and colonized by the powerful. The idea of it as an outlet for working class dissent had gone. I don’t think that was just about David Cameron choosing The Jam’s Eton Rifles for his Desert Island Discs though. More and more I wonder if pop music was always as much a trap for its stars as a potential escape route.

Jim Dale quit pop music after 3 years, describing it with real vehemence as “a sort of hell”. Not least because he’d been forced to keep his wife and family secret and hounded by the tabloid press. You can hear him talk about it in our Front Row interview. Talented art student Cynthia Lennon was to experience that horror too, trapped and forever defined by her broken marriage to a Beatle who treated her with cruelty as his fame grew.

Perhaps I’ve really been brooding on the strange business of success. And how ill prepared we are for its consequences.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine. On sale from street vendors or you can get a subscriptions here.

Further reading/listening

My interview with Jim Dale interview on Front Row (May 2015)

Depeche Mode UK fan site

 

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Young, British and Imam-in-Training: Who we met and why

There were two things producer Georgia Catt and I tried to do with this half hour documentary for Radio 4. One: avoid random isolated Muslim voices claiming to speak for a majority saying  “That’s not Islam” about anything problematic, like terrorism.   It’s something you tend to hear most of the time in discussions about extremism and radicalism. And the other was to  try and contextualise the bigger picture, with a sense of which ideological movements are big players in Britain  – notably the conservative Deobandi and Barelvi seminaries that are educating the imams who tend to go into the big city mosques.

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher

Imran and Shaima Suleman: freelance Imam and Islamic studies teacher (copyright  Samira Ahmed No re-use permitted)

But we also hear really interesting voices from young modern-thinking imams such as Imran Suleman who are trying to break down old barriers. Imran’s wife Shaima had such an interesting perspective having grown up in Egypt and found many British Muslim attitudes far more conservative. Together they currently run Quran classes from their front room, as they’ve found working in mosques so difficult.

There are also interviews with people involved in new fringe movements – the Inclusive Mosques Initiative which is working on breaking down gender segregation and welcoming gay people. Souad Talsi – a community worker in West London – where Mohammad Emwazi (the suspected masked IS hostage murderer)  grew up, gave the important immigrant female and feminist perspective. She’s seen how Islamic conservatism has strengthened on the estates and thinks it’s no coincidence that more and more young people get involved in radical Islam. What was striking over the course of our recordings was how conservative first generation immigrant elders and young British born social media savvy Imams can often seem to share key separatist attitudes.

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire)

Invited to meet staff and students at Jamia Al Karam seminary (Nottinghamshire) (copyright Samira Ahmed no re-use permitted)

We conducted interviews in a range of towns from Plymouth, London, Nottingham, Leicester to Bury with significant Muslim populations – mostly south Asian, which make up 60% of Britain’s Muslim population according to the last census. Not all material is in the final edit, but it did inform what you hear with a sense of a bigger picture.  I’d like to thank the Markfield Institute near Leicester and the Jamia Al Karam seminary (and former secondary boarding school) in Nottinghamshire featured in the programme for welcoming us in and giving us extensive time for frank interviews with teachers and students. The chai and biscuits, incidentally, were excellent. It’s apparent in our interviews that there’s a real gap between what some Muslim seminaries and what some listeners will think is modern Islam and compatible with British values. It’s important to acknowledge that both these institutes welcomed us in to debate the issue on the record. Other Darul Ulooms – or Islamic seminaries – didn’t let us in.

As someone who first covered the rise of radical Islam on British university campuses twenty years ago as a reporter on Newsnight, I welcomed the opportunity to try and gauge just how much conservative and separatist attitudes have grown among Britain’s Muslims. They undoubtedly have grown especially in  some Midlands and Northern English towns and neighbourhoods in cities such as East London. Have politicians really been honest about the connection between separatist attitudes and the hundreds of British born Muslims getting involved in violent extremism?  Most important is the need to acknowledge that many conservative religious groups including Christian and Jewish ones – share similar beliefs to conservative Muslims about homosexuality and the role of women. So there’s a practical challenge in how to tackle radicalism (as given attention in  the alleged Trojan Horse row) without discriminating, especially in a political system in which all main parties support faith schools.We haven’t answered all the questions we’ve raised, but I hope you’ll find this programme was an honest attempt to address some of the concerns.

Young British and Imam In Training is on Radio 4 at 130pm Sunday May 24th and again on Monday May 25th at 8pm and is on iplayer for a month after.

Discussing the programme with Nihal on the BBC Asian Network

 

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Shylock: A Traveller in Time

Pryce (left) with Dominic Mafham as Antonio Globe Theatre Photo: Manuel Harlan

Pryce (left) with Dominic Mafham as Antonio Globe Theatre Photo: Manuel Harlan

The film producer Davina Belling once said of Jonathan Pryce that she always uses him as a lesson for actors “not to count their lines when they’re offered a role. He had 20 lines in the whole film [Breaking Glass] but the impact he made was extraordinary.”

Stealing Breaking Glass

Stealing Breaking Glass

Pryce’s power is apparent on stage too. I urge you to go and see him play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. He’s on stage in only a few scenes but his eloquent dignity steals the whole play.

Most of the plot is nonsense about cross dressing lovers and elopement and a fairytale like puzzle for would be with suitors who must choose between a gold, silver and lead lined box to win the hand of fair Portia. Staged in Elizabethan costume in that fantastically atmospheric wooden ‘O’, its music hall/vaudeville feel is maximized. The groundlings – the audience standing around the stage- get dragged up on stage for jokes and the battle of the sexes gets plenty of laughs.

Yet I found the comedy of the play almost unbearable to watch. For these jovial lovers and their friends that we are supposed to identify with and root for, just as in Shakespeares’s day, are all deeply anti-Semitic carousing posh boys. They jeer and mock and scheme to undo Shylock – the money lending Jew. Pryce knows what he’s doing: “Antonio and the Christians,” he recently told The Guardian. “I think they’re monsters – these Bullingdon Club types who’ve persecuted him for years, spat on him, kicked him. And suddenly they need him. It’s remarkable, actually, the play’s language: it’s totally contemporary.”

GLOBE THEATRE PHOTO: MANUEL HARLAN

GLOBE THEATRE PHOTO: MANUEL HARLAN

Pryce’s Shylock holds on to revenge and hatred as his only comfort in a society that loathes him. Shakespeare’s Venice wears a veneer of nobility, but takes his wealth under pretext of upholding the impartial law of the land. By having his daughter elope & convert to Christianity, Shakespeare tries to load our feelings against him further.

We can see through it now. By chance I saw the production the same day that Auschwitz survivors had been testifying in Germany at the trial of a camp guard. Over the years the Nazis had used both laws (starting with property – no Jews to own bicycles) and mass entertainment (the anti semitic 1940 film Jud Suss) to break down and dehumanize Jewish citizens.

The TV drama Life on Mars stripped the racism from its evocation of the 70s to make its police hero more loveable; a dangerous airbrushing of our recent social history. There was no such concession at the Globe. On this fine spring night – the day after St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s own birthday – the audience experienced something rare: A thought-provoking night out and a riotously funny night out. Plus a simultaneous evocation of exactly how the play would have been enjoyed in Elizabethan times by an audience that would have been intrinsically anti-Semitic. In the theatre we sensed the continuum of prejudice that connects the glory of our greatest writer to some of the worst atrocities of modern times.

The conversion scene. Shylock far left. Phoebe Pryce as his daughter Jessica (Globe Theatre photo Manuel Harlan)

The conversion scene. Shylock far left. Phoebe Pryce as his daughter Jessica (Globe Theatre photo Manuel Harlan)

The Globe’s staging shows Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity – which has been agreed in the “happy ending”. Brought on in a white shift, like a martyr for execution, Pryce speaks only to recite the words of the ritual. We are witnessing the extinction of his very identity. How director Jonathan Munby dares to and manages to pull off both a comedy and a tragedy I do not know. I wonder what Shakespeare and his contemporaries would make of the Globe’s staging, if they could see it? Would they even understand it?

CARRY ON MATRONI was re-watching the old Carry Ons recently and was surprised to find them full of fabulous strong women and wholesome values. Check out how many feature cross dressing and end with a wedding Shakespeare-style. In Carry On Matron (1972) the wonderful Kenneth Cope in drag as a nurse, has to fight off the hospital sexual predator Doctor Prod. It’s a funny scene, that would have been unimaginable with a woman. Even in 1972 the film conveyed a sense of changing attitudes, by putting the issue of sexual harassment at the heart of a mass entertainment film.

Shylock may have been put on stage as a pantomime villain. But the power of a great piece of entertainment is in the truths that lurk beneath the laughs. Sometimes it takes a few decades – or centuries for us to truly appreciate them.

This first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine

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Desert worlds: JG Ballard, Lawrence of Arabia, Dune & the story of Ishmael

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 18.42.06My latest Something Understood for Radio 4 on Sunday April 19th was conceived as a sequel  to The White North Has Thy Bones, about our fascination with the Arctic and the North West Passage. Together with producer Natalie Steed we have, I think, sourced some beautifully evocative music and poems. And where else to begin but with a shimmering desert horizon and that first glimpse of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia to Maurice Jarre’s majestic score? Laurie Lee’s poem Scot in the Desert, which I found in an old school anthology, places the Antarctic hero in the heat and dust, quickly I hope taking us down a more subversive and less macho, Western-centric exploration of the desert landscape, its inhabitants and its heroes.

JG Ballard in The Atrocity Exhibition ponders why so many religious and political leaders emerge from the desert. And Frank Herbert’s Dune plays with the language and imagery of jihad, battling tribes and the geopolitics of a much desired buried commodity.

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The story of Hagar and Ishmael is the heart of the programme. It was one of the first Bible stories I was taught at Convent School and it disturbed me deeply and seemed to challenge even, at the age of 5, any complacency about the narrative of the Old Testament. Hagar is an Egyptian slave; cast out not once, but twice, to face death in the desert; saved only by an Angel of the Lord.

Camille Corot: Hagar in the Wilderness

Camille Corot: Hagar in the Wilderness

Her  son Ishmael is fathered by his own slave master. This mother and child form a parallel narrative in Genesis – saved by the same Lord of Abraham and he is blessed with twelve sons of his own, to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. Ishmael has long had a special resonance with African American Christians for that reason, but is also revered in Islam as a prophet ancestor of Muhammad. His story is that of the black slave son, the perpetual outsider.  Hagar the African woman suffering such indignity and yet enduring. No wonder their place in scripture still unsettles and disturbs and that so many great artists have tried to capture on canvas the powerful emotions buried within a few Biblical verses.

A fantasy novel She Who Remembers – was a gift when I was a teenager. It introduced me to the lost world  of the Native American Anasazi whose abandoned canyon cities have left such a mystery about why they disappeared.

Anasazi abandoned city

Anasazi abandoned canyon city

The idea of sand as a force of nature, encroaching over the ruins of mankind continues to hold apocalyptic power over our imagination.  The ruins on Delos near Mykonos, which I visited a couple of years ago are now what comes to mind when I think of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias.

Apollo: The lost Colossus of Delos island, Greece

Apollo: The lost Colossus of Delos island, Greece

But it was important to me to end the programme with Ishmael, married and settled, accompanied by Natacha Atlas and Jocelyn Pook’s exquisite Adam’s Lullaby. Atlas also featured on The White North Has Thy Bones. The image of Hagar at the point of despair,  failing to protect her baby son from the cruel sun and the thirst of the desert contrasted with the reality — that to millions of people — this environment is no sterile wasteland, but to those who know how to live in harmony with its unique ecosystem, a place called home.

Further listening/reading

Listen to Something Understood: Deserts on Radio 4 on Sunday April 19th and on this BBC iPlayer link for a month after

My Spotify list of Desert music from the programme with extras – including a particularly lovely and less known Frank Sinatra track we couldn’t fit into the edit.

Mystery of the Anasazi by American West historian Adam James Jones

The White North Has They Bones – companion Something Understood programme on the Arctic (January 2015)

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Serial killer stories: From Burke and Hare to Tales Of The Grim Sleeper

It was late, I was tired and I needed cheering up and I found this great comedy on TV that I’d never seen before which did just the job. Burke and Hare, directed by John Landis in 2010 and starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, is a rollicking love song to Edinburgh’s architecture, its Gothic medical pioneering past , its lowlife and its ghosts. But crucially it’s a fantasy black comedy about a real life pair of murderers who killed vulnerable people to supply fresh cadavers to a renowned surgeon who asked no questions but paid well. While I grimaced with the joy of a horror movie fan at the old fashioned physical special effects that created worm ridden corpses and snapped rigor mortis hardened bodies to fit herring barrels, most critics it seems turned away with distaste. Was there something fundamentally, morally unacceptable about making a screwball comedy about such men?

The question was on my mind the next day when I interviewed Nick Broomfield about his new film Tales Of The Grim Sleeper for Front Row on Radio 4. It’s about the case of the man thought to be America’s worst serial killer. South Central LA is where Lonnie Franklin Junior, currently awaiting trial, was, it seems, able to prey on vulnerable drug addicted prostitute women for 25 years because, in the LAPD’s own slang code, the police labeled the corpses they found as “NHIs” – No Human Involved. They didn’t bother to do proper forensics or to alert the public. More than a hundred women are thought to have been tortured and murdered by one man.

The film is beautiful to look at, though in a completely different way to Burke and Hare’s Ealing comedy Edinburgh. Instead of the Gothic drama of those windy cobbled streets, Broomfield shows how South Central LA can be at first glance as beautiful as the rest of Los Angeles. The skies are as blue, the palm trees as tall and the street architecture as cool. Only when Broomfield drives close to the pavement with Pam, the former prostitute who helps him trace survivors of Franklin’s violence, do we see that the young woman they’re talking to isn’t properly dressed, because she’s touting for trade to pay for crack.

Broomfield shot the film using a big camera normally only used for major feature films. “I wanted to make the people and the situation look as beautiful as I could,” Broomfield explained. “I didn’t want to make a dingy film about poor people. So I think the imagery, if anything, celebrates the dignity of the people and their beauty and their incredible articulate way of talking about themselves and their situation. And for a subject that’s pretty tough there’s a great deal of humour in it. There are some very sparkly wonderful people in it.”

Pam is the heart of the film. Broomfield talks of her having a kind of Richard Pryor-esque motormouth. After our interview I told him of my unease about watching Burke and Hare. There are so many dramas and even comedies about fictional serial killers. Can you, should you do that about real murderers? Is it just about enough time passing? In 50 years could the equivalent of Richard Pryor make a jokey Burke and Hare comedy about this apparently funloving guy who could with his big stash of porn and his not untypical attitude to prostitute women?

Stephen Sondheim’s musical of Sweeney Todd, the mythical demon barber of Fleet Street is back in the West End in its latest revival. Is a musical ok, like all the Sherlock/Jack The Ripper Victorian murder culture, because the theme is still dark? Is prurient fascination superior to comedy using the names of real killers?

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

Burke and Hare life and death masks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (photo copyright Samira Ahmed No reuse)

If you go to Edinburgh the city’s grisly past is central to its tourism. There are dozens of ghost tours that promise a fright night around Fleshmarket. The Edinburgh Dungeon has a special Burke and Hare attraction with a couple of rakishly handsome actors posing with shovels on the website.

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

Tombstone in Greyfriars graveyard, Edinburgh (photo copyright Samira Ahmed no reuse)

 Perhaps all I’ve learned is that the cruelty of a few horrifies us so much, that sometimes we don’t know how to respond. We collect the relics, like Burke’s skeleton still on public display in Edinburgh, which is the final shot of Landis’ film. But investigating the crime properly is crucial; something the police failed to do in South Central LA. And the unease we feel at the way such stories are told is probably something to cherish.

This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. On sale weekly from street vendor or you can subscribe here.

Further listening/reading

My Front Row interview with Nick Broomfield (23 Mar 2015)

 

 

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