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)

Posted in Culture, Film, Music, Radio, Religion, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

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)



Posted in Comedy, Crime and Justice, Film, History, journalism, Media, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sixty years on: Has Cinderella on film got trapped in The Valley of the Dolls?

I rather enjoyed the new live action Disney Cinderella. We’re reviewing it on Front Row on Monday Mar 23rd. But the issues raised here still stand.

Imagine Cinderella as a anti social tomboy with cropped black hair who acts well, just a bit too weird..actually unlikeable. Imagine that when she’s transformed for the ball, her dark exotic beauty means the palace guests all think she’s an Egyptian princess; like, actually, North African. Now imagine the fairy god mother is the mad old village tramp lady that everyone avoids. This isn’t PC gone mad. MGM actually made this film The Glass Slipper in 1955 with one of its brightest new stars, the young Leslie Caron. That was five years after the Disney animated version.

Since childhood Ella has been boasting to everyone about how one day she’ll live in the palace. Compared to her beautiful, elegant feminine stepsisters this girl is well, frankly emotionally disturbed. You can see why in this 1950s retro Europa, the village all feel it’s quite generous of Step mother Elsa Lanchester to have agreed to keep this weird creepy child at all, even as a servant.

MGM’s The Glass Slipper was made to capitalize on Leslie Caron’s early film success. There’s a lot of ballet in it, but the trailer misleads. What intrigues is its strikingly modern heroine. A lonely neglected orphan who’s put up an amazing hard front. She doesn’t try to be liked. She gurns and stomps around. It’s quite uncomfortable to watch at times, giving the film an unexpectedly real emotional power despite the super pretty sets and dancing. Her waist is not the point. You’re embarrassed by some of the thing she does and says. And when she goes to the ball, aided by her old tramp lady – the only friend she has – transformed by the power of a beautiful gown – everyone thinks she’s an Egyptian princess.

Compare that to the sickly sweet, ditzy girls of Frozen or the headlines being made by film critics over the new superblonde wasp-waisted Cinderella. Every time a new Disney princess film comes, out, and they’re churning them out at the moment, I am surprised by how dated its heroines can seem, compared to films make 20 to 60 years ago.

The romances have changed too, though perhaps in more complex ways. Modern princes tend to be the same age as their princesses which perhaps is more comfortable viewing. Early 20s. Caron’s Prince Charming is a grey-haired Michael Wilding. Richard Chamberlain was about 40 when he charmed Gemma Craven’s Cinderella in The Slipper and the Rose, though it doesn’t jar; credit to Craven’s sweet but not sickly performance. And Richard Chamberlain responds to the campness all around by playing his part superstraight. It’s totally charming. There’s a lack of adulthood about the modern films combined with a really concerning off-the-shoulder sexiness. Listen to the voice characterisations in these old films and some of the cartoons, such as the 1950s Disney Sleeping Beauty. There’s a physical maturity to the voices, which conveyed adulthood and adult relationships.

When writer and comedian Meryl O’ Rourke and I got talking about our mutual loathing for Frozen for The Big Issue last month, she pointed out how Disney films, perhaps just practically focused on monetizing that Disney Princesses demographic to the max, show heroines who barely look more than teenagers themselves. 8 year old girls given an 8 year old’s idea of a being a grownup. They are not shown adult role models.

What the hell, they’re only kids’ films right? Does it matter? I think it does. Mulan was on TV on International Women’s Day. I’d like to think the scheduler at Channel 5 did it deliberately. Meryl observed every song in it is about mocking and challenging female and male gendered roles. Three men drag up to help Mulan get into the Palace for the climax of the film. The guards mistake them for “concubines. UGLY concubines.” Mulan then jumps one and starts strangling him. Do you think Disney would ever make such a film post Frozen? I was similarly stunned at the Casablanca-comparable depths when I re-watched Lady And The Tramp a couple of weeks earlier with its rowing lovers and Tramp’s womanizing past. (He is a dog, after all?)

It’s relevant that The Glass Slipper didn’t make back its production costs on release. Though considering when it was made, it’s a fascinating outlier for feminist revisionings of old fairytales. The Feminine Mystique wouldn’t be published for 9 years. It was written by Helen Deutsch, whose first screenplay was for National Velvet and who wrote such rollicking adventures as Kim and King Solomon’s Mines. Her first film for Leslie Caron was Lili – an original screenplay, which we can also credit for inspiring John Waters’ early pre-film career as a pupeeter. She wrote it after seeing rushes of Caron in An American In Paris. It earned Deutsch an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. As the new Frozen Fever short and Disney’s live action Cinderella open in the cinemas, it’s a shame she isn’t around to give us her view on the landscape of modern fairytales and female characters onscreen.

Incidentally once you’ve noticed the giant Japanese cartoon style eyes of the female characters in Frozen Fever compared to the men, it’s impossible to forget.  With one early review in Vox claiming the 1950 animated Cinderella character had more energy and assertiveness than the new Cinderella,  it seems only too appropriate that Helen Deutsch’s last screenplay was for the Valium-era Valley of the Dolls.

Further reading

Front Row review of Cinderella (March 23rd 2015)

Frozen? That’s not feminism (Big Issue column)

Letterboxd review of Cinderella

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The Bronte heroine who hated bouquets

Lillies planted by my mother

Lillies planted by my mother (All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted)

For this week’s Something Understood producer Lucy Dichmont was keen to explore the elaborate Victorian coded language of floral bouquets. Unexpectedly I found myself pulling out memories and stories that I’ve been carrying around for decades. I’ve also created a Spotify list of music from the programme plus some extras.

At 16 I read my first Charlotte Bronte novel; Villette. And I’d never forgotten how her repressed plain heroine Lucy Snowe, stuck teaching vain little French coquettes in a Brussels finishing school described her dislike of cut flowers, on the day the whole school was supposed to bring in posies. What self-loathing and secret desire burned in Miss Snowe’s lonely repressed heart.

My Passionflower

My Passionflower

My suburban garden was supposed to have been the starting point for the programme — specifically the giant passionflower that sprawls all over the front door — that I was given 25 years ago.But the plant’s astounding visual structure, symbolism  and origins meant we began the journey in South America with the Conquistadors and the Jesuits and the haunting Ennio Morricone music from the film The Mission.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Asian and South American exotica soon took over as they have much of southern England’s suburbia. Rhododendron bushes and bamboo glades are presided over by flocks of cawing Himalyan parakeets, which are rumoured to have been breeding since some escaped from the Isleworth Studios set of The African Queen.


A cursory search for poems to celebrate the suburban garden will always  find John Betjeman and rhododendron poems rather too obsessed with hearty school girls, which we did not go with. However Sylvia Plath’s The Rhododendron Stealers offered a more intriguing female take on school girls and passion, rather  like Villette.

A child's eye view of a the flowers in our garden

A child’s eye view of a the flowers in our garden

Dave Brubeck’s Alice In Wonderland music, inspired by the Disney animated film, enabled me to remember the childhood magic of being the same height as flowers, and peering into the wildly patterned blooms of foxgloves, tulips and hollyhocks  like giant sea shells, with a kind of animal power. Most of these photos were taken by my daughter a couple of years ago, giving the the anthropomorphic effect of a child’s height view.


Growing up in with Indian parents, there are still flowers that I know only by their Indian names – like the Champa – or in their much more powerful Indian forms — the fragrance of Indian gulabs (roses) and jasmine. Rabindranath Tagore and the music from the film Monsoon Wedding capture some of that intoxicating fragrance and beauty. But we can also allow surrender to the French orientalist fantasy of the Flower Duet in  Delibe’s 19th century opera Lakme — about the doomed romance between an Indian Brahmin maiden and a British imperial officer. A famous brand of Indian cosmetics is still named Lakme after her.

Ice Cream and Savoy tea roses in my garden

Ice Cream (white) and Savoy Hotel (pink) tea roses in my garden

But if I have a favourite piece of music in the programme, it is the Ben E King version of the much covered Spanish Harlem. I originally planned for it to run immediately after I talk about planting roses that remind me of inner London. And it’s that song I think of when I reminisce about the cracked concrete of those long hot summers in the city and the welcome escape of the parks and the shared joy of the flowers within.


Something Understood is on Radio 4 on Sunday March 8th and iplayer for a month after.

Further reading/listening

Music from the programme (Spotify)

My Secret Hollywood Garden  

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Frozen? That’s not feminism

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My daughter finally got me to watch Frozen recently. I think she’s sorry she did. Though I sense 13 year old girls are watching it with a sense of irony and a  kind of knowing detachment in the way my generation used to watch Sex And The City:  knowing better than the young kids who lapped it all up at face value. Still, I have been a brooding outcast in my castle ever since. Reduced to throwing icy blasts from my fingertips at the telly and the computer where slebs and men – especially men say that I’m the freak, I’m weird. That film I loathe is actually a feminist masterpiece. Imagine me now in a horn-ed head dress as I raise my bony fingers and curse you – curse YOU all – for bowing down to Disney’s Frozen and its puny idea of “empowerment”.

My evil cohorts agree. “It’s pants,” says broadcaster Muriel Gray. “The song’s awful too,” adds historian Tom Holland, while acknowledging he’s “not the target demographic”.

“It’s very fashionable now to call almost anything feminist because it has a leading female character,” observes comedian and writer Meryl O’Rourke. “But women doing things doesn’t necessarily mean it’s feminist.”

In this story of two sisters – the older Elsa has magic ice powers but her parents just get her to wear gloves. And this is a film in which the gloves never really come off. She is chased out of her kingdom as a witch – wait she is a witch who has the power to create living snow men – but fails to do anything useful with it. Where Maleficient would have raised an army of snow warriors or turned herself into a dragon, Frozen’s Queen Elsa, merely mopes around singing a Bonnie Tyler style power ballad.

It’s striking that Disney’s princesses are now most frequently placed without irony in a late 19th century European aristocracy – surely the most degenerate inbred, useless time to be royal – when they didn’t even go into battle anymore. My favourite Cinderella film, the non-Disney The Slipper and The Rose (1976) at least joked about Euphrania/Britain as a pointless tiny nation with nothing but its heritage industry to keep it going. And talk about fantasy; it even made me believe the handsome Prince, lovely Richard Chamberlain was straight.

In fact the most intriguing aspect of Frozen is how a crowd of ageing princes descend on Finlandia like a cabal of CEOs at the Davos Economic Forum muttering about opening it up to free trade. But that’s never really developed. Instead we have vague platitudes about bad men and the “rightful” ruler of a hereditary monarchy.

There is a sidelined tribe of magical “ethnic” trolls and Olaf, the camp, urban snowman which reveals much about the superficiality of Frozen’s empowerment agenda. Baroness Floella Benjamin told me how often over the years she challenged children’s writers and publishers about the lack of diversity in their stories and got told “but it’s a fantasy world”. I’ve heard the same on Frozen. We have trolls, living snowmen and a princess with ice-throwing powers, but one father told me it would be “unrealistic” to have a less vanilla lineup of main characters in this fabricated aristo retro Europa.

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 16.09.41Contrast it with Marvel’s equally icy Asgard in Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful Thor movie, which proved you can do effortless diversity in the Nordic lands if you can be bothered.

Most of all I think of Mulan (1998) – a personal favourite of mine and Meryl’s. Disney’s version of a famous Chinese legend follows a daughter who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army and save her family’s honour. Though done with charm and humour, there a constant sense of how our heroine is fighting against a cultural norm in which women are regarded as worthless. Mulan voiced by Ming Na Wen (currently playing an equally ass-kicking adult Agent of Shield) enjoys a most satisfying romance with an equal — fellow warrior Shang. As Meryl O’ Rourke points out: “They have an adult relationship. They meet at work!” Adult relationships are what have entirely disappeared from Disney princess films. I watched Lady and the Tramp the other day. It was practically Casablanca compared with Frozen.

What bothered me most about 50 Shades of Grey was that the sex fantasy bought by millions of adult women was about a protaganist of just 21. In fact probably about the same age as Anna and Elsa in Frozen. Meryl O’Rourke notes how often we give our little girls heroines just a few years older than them and nothing else. It’s a sad coincidence that Made In Dagenham the musical is to close, when what we need more than anything are celebrations of genuine sorority and adult romantic relationships, not dungeons of eternal little girlhood.

This column is adapted from one that first appeared in The Big Issue magazine

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While the flame is strong: Pop and politics (Kingston Uni class notes)

This a list of suggested reading and films to follow on from my lecture for  Dr Rupa Huq’s 2nd year sociology module on Monday March 2nd 2015 11am. The title of course comes from The Young Ones (1961). It’s open to the public to attend. Penhryn Rd campus, Room JG 2008. Directions here


Are the rich winning a cultural class war? (BBC News Online feature Feb 2015)

The enterprise allowance schemes old and new (Guardian 2011)

The  Truth about “The Jam Generation” 80s Remix (May 2011)

Tories say what rocks their world (2004 BBC News)

Lessons from the Ghost Town generation: What the 60s and 80s had in common (June 2011)

1951 Then and Now: Britain mended and Britain on the make (2011)

Billy Liar and the birth of the dollybird (2013)


The Young Ones (1961) Sidney J Furie

Privilege (1967) Peter Watkins

Breaking Glass (1980) Brian Gibson

How we made Breaking Glass (Guardian 2014)


The Last Party: Britpop, Blair & the Demise of British Pop by John Harris (2003)

Simon Price – music journalist

great interview (Wales Art Review)

Posted in Culture, Film, Kingston University class notes, Music, Politics, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

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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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