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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I can’t believe he did that: David Guetta on Serge Gainsbourg

David Guetta on Front Row

David Guetta on Front Row

Super producer and DJ David Guetta came onto Front Row for last night’s show. Having grown up in the 70 and 80s in France he listened to American soul, funk and British synth and electronica, quoting Ultravox lyrics through our interview. The exception was Serge Gainsbourg and his boundary-busting ways. Guetta specifically remembered, as a teenager, watching with fascination Serge Gainsbourg declare to a very young Whitney Houston on French TV “I want to fuck you”, much to the horror and embarrassment of the French male host as well as Ms Houston. I can’t embed the link, but you can watch it below. As Guetta says in the programme, “I was never a huge French music fan, except for Serge Gainsbourg, that I really really love, still today. And what he was doing would be so impossible today. And it’s kind of crazy to see how we only think that with time we’re more open-minded.”

It’s a weird and genunely unsettling watch. Like Dominique Strauss-Kahn crossed with that drunken Oliver Reed “Wild Thing” moment. And exactly the kind of TV encounter that we can feel was wrong, yet be fascinated by because it was allowed to happen at all.

Thanks to @arthurascii for hunting it out:  That Serge and Whitney moment 

BBC Front Row interview with David Guetta (Nov 24th 2014)



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The 70s in brief: If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so.

"If you don't want it pinched don't flaunt it so." The Goodies wonderful satire on sexual harrassment (1975)

“If you don’t want it pinched don’t flaunt it so.” The Goodies’ wonderful satire on sexual harrassment (1975)

The 70s. WTF. The Channel 4 documentary series It Was Alright In the 70s that aired over the last 2 Saturdays drew on the extremes. Rape jokes galore, and X-rated child safety information films that terrified us. For those interested in following up the short comments of mine that aired, here are links to pieces I’ve written over the years.

On racism and NewsroundOn the Lambs Navy Rum Girl, On the Buses & Madeline Smith.  On 70s Game Shows & The Iron CurtainOn kids’ TV 

But having watched the programmes what struck me was:

1. How the most shocking material was seeing highbrow middle class presenters Michael Parkinson and Barry Norman involved in really sexist and racist content, where it was least expected. Parky’s Sunday Times advert was a lazy and gratuitous cricket visual, worthy of Benny Hill of scoring with a younger blonde. Norman’s scripted sarcasm for an Agatha Christie remake, implied it was essentially, political correctness gone mad (in 1975!) to not use the “n” word. Something about only black people being allowed to call “a nigger a spade”. I’m guessing he wrote that himself. Remarkable and revealing of attitudes in the highbrow end of broadcasting at the time, especially when you think of the effortless talent-based diversity of many children’s programmes at the time, notably Play School which had been casting such broadcasters as Paul Danquah and Derek Griffiths for years.

2. Derek Griffiths is a God. You might not know this if you saw only the strange bus- top song about interracial love featured on the It Was Alright In the 70s. If he came across as defensive in the interview, I suspect it’s because it’s so completely atypical of his work. Ask anyone who watched him on Play School or Play Away. At her British Film Institute event in February last year Joy Whitby, the former head of BBC Children’s Programmes, who launched Play School, singled him out as one of the greatest talents she’s seen. He was an incredibly important role model. Wayne Laryea on Pipkins was the same. The producer of Pipkins recently told me how much his talent stood out, but he was never given the break  to develop his career. As I observed of female actors like Madeline Smith, there was a sense for actors of colour of taking what work there was or none, while the battles for fair treatment continued longterm.

3. The Goodies’ South Africa episode (one of the frustratingly few available on DVD) is admirably daring. In an unused part of my interview for the doco I mentioned a similarly daring episode (Cunning Stunts – yes that’s right) about role reversal sexual harrassment in which horrible boss Tessa Wyatt pinches Tim Brooke Taylor’s bum. When he complains she declares “If you don’t want it pinched, don’t flaunt it so.” My sister and I loved this episode and used to quote that line. In fact we still do. And watching a different clip from the episode available on the BBC website this future journalist had forgotten it was set in a newsroom.

4. There was a special skill to doing the Black and White Minstrel show makeup without smudging it into grey. A senior makeup artist at the BBC told me. Incidentally makeup artists I’ve met across British broadcasting  have all witnessed or experienced a lot of sexual harassment in light ents. One told me on joining the BBC in the 70s they were told by producers, never to leave any children alone with Jimmy Savile.

5. Actually urban Britain was a lot more happily diverse than you might think. My mum, who made me turn off Love Thy Neighbour (which now, as an adult, having never watched it before, is quite fascinatingly sophisticated in intent) was at the same time presenting a weekly Indian cookery slot on the popular lunchtime BBC1 show Pebble Mill At One and hanging out with guests like Sacha Distel. She had a chat show on BBC2 called Gharbar (Oprah for first generation Asian immigrant women) where they discussed everything from domestic violence to how to cook with exotic new ingredients like broccoli. I sat in the gallery and watched recordings and experienced nothing but inclusive professional BBC camararderie between crew, production team and presenters that made me feel welcome.

6. Those children’s safety films. I quite like Matthew Sweet’s thesis that our generation raised on The Death Line were so terrified that we are to blame for the fact that no one lets their kids out to play anymore. However I contend that the real message of those films was: there are lots of  dangers and predatory adults out there and no one is going to even attempt to put in safeguards to protect you from them. This was absolutely true. In the stranger danger film I watched the smart child even says “no thankyou” to the paedeophile trying to entice him into his car. Popular culture gave them easy cover.

7. I blame the 1960s sort of. Middle class ad and broadcast executives poured their own idea of the sexual freedom of the counterculture into the punchbowl of 70s British TV. Arthur Lowe lusting over schoolgirls. John Peel’s “schoolgirl of the week” feature, say, is still overlooked as he was a champion of indie music. Or  take Adrian Henri’s sexy schoolgirl poems included in my 1980s copy of  the Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse. When Roger McGough came into Channel 4 News after his death to do a reading and I showed them to him he sensibly suggested we quietly set them aside.

8. So in conclusion. There was a lot that was right in the 70s. But just like in news, it’s usually more important to point out what was wrong. As the growing number of investigations into historic child abuse stemming from Operation Yewtree unfold, remembering what was considered just entertainment in mainstream 70s TV, is a useful insight into just what people in power could get away with and why.




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Crossing the black line: the secret history of Durham Cathedral


When you walk into Durham Cathedral take a moment to look down at your feet in the nave. You might notice a big black line of stone in the grey slab floor, right near the entrance at the back. I noticed it on my honeymoon, when my husband and I went to visit There used to be a sign on the pillar telling you that it marked the point, forward of which women were not allowed. I was intrigued and somewhat shocked by the idea that such beauty was off bounds to half the population for so long. That story, which I told producer Lucy Dichmont, was the starting point for developing this Something Understood.  The Cathedral’s since taken down the sign, because they think it gives an unnecessarily negative image.  And Cathedral guide Lillian Groves, who’s known the Cathedral since her student days in the 1940s, challenges my assumption of female exclusion in the programme in a most engaging way.

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No re-use without permission. Unless labelled otherwise all photos are copyright Samira Ahmed.

In the Galilee Chapel, built to enable women to worship in the monastery, she’s still finding new secrets of its human life, such as  the offerings box, where generations of women’s fingers have worn the stone to a cupped smoothness. Having studied Anglo Saxon poetry at university and been haunted by the world of early North Eastern Christianity I took the chance to explore the strange phenomenon of anchorites and anchoresses — devout Christians who would wall themselves up in tiny cells  to liberate their souls to worship God, even as their bodies were confided to the narrowest physical space.

I get to explore the history of the building through its geography – a citadel on the hill – and its fabric: the huge grooved columns that resemble the trunks of prehistoric trees, fossils in its marble, the tree branches visible in the beams of the dormitory, the remarkable stained glass window of an airman which remembers the Second World War Baedeker air raids that tried and failed to destroy such cultural landmarks as the Cathedral. Locals credit St Cuthbert for the mysterious fog that threw the German bombers off their target. Everywhere there are little details to linger on if you take the time to notice: Traditional swastikas, untainted by the Nazi appropriation centuries later,  decorating the robes on the magnificent portrait of of St Cuthbert above his shrine. Once the shrine was richly decorated with gold and jewels. The dissolution of the monasteries strippd that away, and it’s useful to contemplate how we now take the austere plainness of his shrine, as the natural setting.

Monuments to miners, to fallen soldiers and the shrine of the Venerable Bede — an early chronicler of English history — remind you of the Cathedral’s one thousand year presence.

There are “backstage’ places we got to see that we couldn’t fit into the final edit:  Lillian Grove took us to the chapter house where monastic politics played out and the prison for bad monks. We discussed how though pitch dark with the door closed, it actually had ventilation and a built in lavatory that emptied directly into the river — something modern prisons failed to achieve with enduring slopping out. And most memorably we got locked in the tower for an hour (deliberately so we could record in private) with the magnificent view of  the world below as we sat out on the roof of the tower and listened to the bells.

There were some outlandish ideas that didn’t make the final cut, such as my idea of paralleling the closed world of the monks, as war threatened outside, with the world of the Berlin Cabaret. A number from Liza Minnelli in Durham Cathedral would have been fun.

One thing I would say is, go one day, make sure you get a guided tour or buy a guide book, and most importantly, take your time to find the secrets yourself.

You can listen to the programme on Sunday November 16th on Radio 4 at 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 7 days after.

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Big Girls Don’t Cry: What Made In Dagenham reveals about women who make a fuss

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Made In Dagenham – the Musical opened in the West End last night. It was an honour to meet four of the original Ford machinsts who launched the strike that resulted in the Equal Pay Act. They enjoyed the show and took its sentimental central fiction on its terms. In fact the show, much more than the film, is a magnificent celebration of working class community life, uncompromisingly feminist, with a deeply satirical absurdist vision of late 60s political culture stolen by the scenes between Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson and their bowler hatted minions from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Listen to Front Row on Radio 4  tonight or iplayer after for our review. But it struck me as remarkable that female ASDA workers are right now bringing a class action over exactly the same issue as the Ford Dagenham women.

The original Ford workers at opening night: l-r Gwyn Davies, Sheila Douglass, Eileen Bullen, Vera Sime (photo copyright Samira Ahmed)

The original Ford workers at opening night: l-r Gwyn Davis, Sheila Douglass, Eileen Bullen, Vera Sime (photo copyright Samira Ahmed)

As Michael Newman,  one of their  lawyers from Leigh Day recently told The Independent: “In the supermarkets the check-out staff and shelf-stackers are mostly women. The people in the warehouses are pretty much all men. And, as a whole, the group that is mostly men gets paid more…Our investigations suggest that the jobs are pretty much the same, in that warehouse staff are responsible for taking items off shelves, putting them on pallets and loading them into lorries. In the supermarket, they do the reverse: taking the pallets off the lorries, unstacking them and putting the items on the shelves. Where the jobs are not similar, we still think they are of equal value.”

Made in Dagenham’s star Gemma Arterton, who was visibly moved when the four Ford workers came on stage last night, has made the political connection with Asda in a recent interview.  By contrast some male critics adopted a curious tone: “The equality seam has been overmined” according to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail. While The Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish on the one hand described the star only as a “former Bond girl” before claiming the feminist moral high ground bizarrely accusing the show of flashing “surprising amounts of female flesh considering it’s flying the flag for empowerment”. The women wear nothing shorter than normal period minidresses while an Austin Powers launch of the Ford Cortina is played as a strictly ironic parody of sexy women being used to sell cars.

There’s an argument regularly deployed by some male news editors, politicians and trades union leaders against women that they’re wrong to make a fuss about equal pay, treatment and legal process.  In February  it was deployed over the Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard and his refusal to apologize for alleged sexual harassment against four women; allegations which he denies.

In a piece headlined: “Lord Rennard case overshadows more serious issues of sexual politics”, the Guardian’s veteran political journalist Michael White wrote that while no one should have to put with harassment, he wished for more of the gumption of a generation of tough postwar women MPs such as Barbara Castle. They, in his view, ploughed through the challenges of the 70s cop-a-feel culture to stay focussed on passing important legislation on equal pay and child benefit that transformed the lives of millions of women. He argued in the conclusion to his piece that “Homophobia remains a lethal fact of life in many parts of the world…slavery, female genital mutilation and other horrors are still widely inflicted on women, even in Britain. A clammy hand on the knee is not quite the same.”

A number of prominent women in politics and journalism from a range of ideological view points objected on Twitter, including Beatrix Campbell who wrote: “You polarize economic versus culture. Feminists don’t.”

Michael White replied:

“We all have to choose. Today media (and you) have chosen this issue over ( say) Clegg’s speech yesterday on mental health issue.”

White was spot on in observing how Clegg’s enemies in the national press were exploiting the Rennard story to undermine him. But his claim of a lack of  “proportion” in how the story was being reported, revealed the double bind of tackling sexual harassment and indeed sexual discrimination. How often they are pushed down the pecking order by this logic.

Here’s another example to consider in the light of Made In Dagenham: The news that Birmingham Council was selling the NEC (National Exhibition Centre). The headlines suggested a poor local authority besieged by greedy lawyers. The more complex reality is that the council had for years insisted on fighting a legal battle against thousands of its women employees – many of them dinner ladies and care workers — who were paid significantly less than men doing jobs on the same grade, in blatant defiance of the Equal Pay Act.  The council eventually gave up and has been negotiating settlements with 11 thousand workers. From the start of the case though, the women were regularly accused of being “greedy” and of threatening their male colleagues’ jobs; both by the council and in some cases even by their own unions. It’s why some chose to pursue it via private lawyers; notably Stefan Cross, who, was dubbed in one newspaper profile The Most Hated Lawyer in Britain. He told The Justice Gap online magazine last year:

‘Throughout the entire period that we have been running these cases, that kind of bullying  has been levelled at women to frighten them off…The worst of it has come from trade unions…In Leeds there were  trade union officials going around kitchen by kitchen telling people not to put in claims. When we were organizing publicity, we were getting picketed by the unions. We had branch secretaries and stewards infiltrating meetings and bawling out our clients… They always want to protect the position of the men and they always keep that a secret.”

This is exactly what Made In Dagenham was about.  Margaret Hodge and Caroline Flint and the young deputy leader of Dagenham council were among the female politicians at opening night. They enjoyed it immensely.


Barbara Castle, who pushed through the 1970 Equal Pay Act isn’t around to tell us what she thinks of either the Lord Rennard row or the ASDA and Birmingham Council equal pay battles. Or, for that matter, her transformation into West End diva in Made In Dagenham. But these stories of women making a “fuss” remind us to beware of who in politics and in journalism is defining the pecking order and the battles worth fighting.

This is updated and adapted from an article that first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in February 2014 

Further reading/listening:

Interview with Vera Sime

BBC Front Row

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Othello, Cathedral Wars and the power of a board game

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 15.29.22This column first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine: Journalism worth paying for.

As autumn closes in and the clocks go back, I crave vintage board games. I have a whole cupboard, where they spill off shelves – the haul of many charity shop quests.

My latest acquisition is a second copy of Othello (one for the bedroom, one for downstairs). Marketed in my childhood years as if it were a recently uncovered cousin of Ottoman chess, the joy of turning those discs from black to white and back again can create battles like no other. I was horrified to read on Wikipedia a claim that its current incarnation is based on a 70s Japanese version: the green baize board symbolizes the green-eyed monster in Shakespeare’s play, rather than a witty reference to grown up gambling.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 15.34.41Paul Merton in his recent autobiography recalled how his father could never go easy on him in games, even at ping pong; even when asked by his mum to give the child a break. I’ve remained conflicted about when it’s right to let my progeny win. After all Othello is one of the few games I can really thrash them at. And boy, do they still get upset when I snatch victory with that perfectly taken corner. (It’s all about the corners. It’s for their own good that they learn it from me). As it says on the box: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master” – and I’ve got a thirty year lead on them.

Though it’s breaks with my rules I will confess to buying a brand new KerPlunk! for my husband on our honeymoon when he told me he’d never been allowed one as a child. All that trauma instantly healed with my love and a quick visit to the retail park in Hexham.

The greatest joys are the “new” old discoveries. My son and I often face off over Cathedral. I brought it home a mystery from the charity shop in a big, heavy and solemn-feeling square Papal robe-red box. The blond and dark stained wooden chapels, houses and church shaped pieces had to be placed in turn on a sturdy wooden grid till it crowded in like a medieval city. It turned out to be a delightful power-grab of a game from New Zealand, in which you attempt to annex control of the town. Sort of like Ken Russell’s version of The Devils only without Murray Melvin torturing Oliver Reed. Putting on a fancy dressing gown and wearing a big signet ring as you place your pieces is a good substitute.

There are misfires too. If a game appears in a charity shop in mint condition it’s probably for a reason. A “Save the Hedgehog” wildlife charity board game had a rule manual so complex it had to cross the busy high street back to whence it came. The News Game from The BBC – a crude attempt to jump on the 1980s Trivial Pursuits bandwagon –required the rigging up of a plastic rack to display stories based on a typewriter and newspaper hot-metal idea of scripting and running orders. How could a game make one of the most exciting trades in the world – journalism so unbelievably dull?

But the biggest joy of old boardgames was that they were solidly constructed so you could turn your imagination loose on them. Spear’s Games were once proudly made in England. The dark-coloured boxes had oil paint-rich images of colour and darkness like Magritte’s shadowed street with a blue daytime sky.

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Home You Go! – a square-dance version of Ludo – had 20 primary coloured little humanoid plastic counters who formed the crew of my Moonbase Alpha. The dice was the master computer. With the houndstooth-grained board, the box lid and some scraps of paper when I ran out of pieces to ransack, I constructed every favourite place from every SF film I’d ever seen: long empty white lounges with coins and candy coloured rubbers as seats to ape 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was even an Andromeda Strain-inspired decontamination chamber in case the crew encountered a deadly alien virus. I finished it at last one morning before heading to school. When I came rushing back it was all gone. All of it. Not a piece remained on the floor My mother had decided to tidy up. And hoover. I guess that was my own boardgame trauma.

I bought a new Home You Go! in my twenties. I haven’t made the base again. But I could, you know. Anytime I like.

Further reading

Playing Chess with Gadaffi

Spear’s Games Archive

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Outrage is cheap: Challenging politicians about Rotherham, race & misogyny


Cafe board in the Imperial Buildings, Rotherham Spotted while filming on location

Cafe board in the Imperial Buildings, Rotherham. Spotted while filming on location

I suppose it’s good to still get agitated about stories I cover. But the amount of political capital that politicans have tried to make out of the Rotherham child sexual grooming scandal left me all the more appalled when I went there to make this film for BBC1’s Inside Out programme in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire (available on that  iplayer link till 1900 Nov 5th) , and found the survivors with no organised support or campaign fund. The film was produced by Sam Wichelow who approached me about tackling the taboo of race and culture in the scandal and it was sensitively shot by Mark Graham. My thanks to them both.

I’d read the Jay Report cover to cover and it had brought to the surface my nagging worry, carried for nearly 20 years since I first went to report on riots in Bradford, about the growing gender and racial segregation of British Pakistanis in some northern towns. I wrote a piece for The Guardian about why it wasn’t racist to talk about race and culture in regard to the abuse of white working class girls. As a result producer Sam Wichelow asked me to make the film. I’m humbled by the resilient women I met who have survived the abuse, suffered the torment of seeing their children go through it and the women supporting them through independent counselling.

Given the scale of similar abuse in towns such as Derby, Oxford, Rochdale and Keighley in recent years, it feels as though we have only just begun to looking into the edge of an abyss. Here’s the latest piece I wrote about it for The Guardian today, challenging politicians happy to declare their outrage, to put some money and action where their mouth is.

My thanks to all the women who spoke to me. To Holly Archer, Joanne Turner, “Jessica”, Sandra Moule of the Rotherham Women’s Counselling Service and Pitstop Counselling for Men, to Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana – a longterm and vocal campaigner against the culture of silence about domestic violence and forced marriage within Asian communities and to former MP Ann Cryer, who was vilified for speaking up about the issue so many years ago.

And here’s a reminder from 2 years ago about how some public officials and national newspapers, now so apparently outraged by the abuse of “our girls” hounded a survivor of grooming as a fantasist and insisted such things could never happen in Britain.

Donations to the Rotherham Women’s Counselling Service and Pitstop Counselling for Men can be made here.



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Beating time: The secret musical life of metronomes, prison camps & airport lounges

Something Understood preview: Beating Time from Samira Ahmed on Vimeo.

For this week’s Something Understood producer Natalie Steed and I explored the idea of beating time.

There’s the piano I still keep by the front door, just  where my mother used to place it, to use up spare time waiting for deliveries or visitors or to work off some stress. And then there’s the metronome.

A metronome was the bane of my life as a child having piano lessons. That clockwork device to practise speed and rhythmn. My teacher would tend to take it down and wind it when she felt I could push myself a bit harder; get a piece even better. And I was never allowed to touch it. It being the seventies, she’d  brush the Limmits crumbs off her Beryl Reid-style nylon floral frock, set her empty Ski yoghurt pot on the edge of the piano lid, and take the metronome down from its shelf. There were those seconds of anxiety as I watched her carefully run her thumb down the settings, select a tempo (how fast would she go?) before winding the key and setting it off.

But in my twenties I bought one I found in a charity shop. Perhaps it was a declaration of adulthood. That I was in charge of my time now and I could discipline myself.

We explore the tyranny and liberation of the Waltz – from the swagger of Strauss to the intimate workings of Chopin’s salon pieces.

Brian Eno’s music for airports tries to set us free from the stress of airline lounges.

I first met the dynamic conductor Charley Hazelwood when we presented a Prom together back in 2011 and asked him to explain the mysterious power of the conductor and the beat. He does it wonderfully, with the help of Indian tablas which follow no Western style rhythmn at all, but uncoil like smoke in improvisation.

The time that must be measured in prison is reflected in a letter from communist activist  Rosa Luxemburg in the Kaiser’s Berlin, and in the remarkable music of Oliver Messian’s Quartet for the End of Time — composed for fellow inmates during the long months and years they were held in a German POW camp during the 1940s.

Virginia Woolf’s impressionistic The Waves captures the distorted power of the hands of a clock as school children wait for them to tick to hometime.

And Dave Brubeck offers the mischief of syncopated beats as time becomes something elusive and tricky. I hope you enjoy it.

The programme’s on Radio 4 on Sunday October 5th at 6am and 1130pm and here on i-player for seven days after.

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Electric cars, the tinned sardine aquarium & the stink of Hearst Castle – an eco-trip through John Steinbeck’s California

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This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for.

A giant eye in an inky mass rose up of the water and beheld me. It was a humpback whale calf surfacing unexpectedly close to the prow of the boat where I stood. It was just a moment before it plunged again; but long enough for me to gasp out loud. A hundred years ago such an expedition from the California whaling port of Monterey, would have been armed with harpoons and saws to extract their monetary worth in oil, bone and blubber. But in 2014 it’s whale watching that brings in the crowds, and a marine biologist not a whale-hunter calling out the tell-tale spouts of a surfacing cetacean so tourists can marvel at their beauty.

If California is the ultimate American state, then Monterey and the surrounding coast embody the nation’s often contradictory environmental history; its ability to simultaneously celebrate and squander its natural resources. Electric cars in cities which destroyed most public transport; running energy guzzling driers when the sun shines almost every day because hanging washing up on lines is considered tacky.

80 years ago after whaling declines, Monterey was centre of a fishing industry. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row immortalized in fiction the real stinking street, lined with canning factories where the plentiful shoals of anchovies and especially sardines were recklessly overfished – beyond human demand. Just in 1939 460,000 tons of sardines were caught. By the 1940s more than half the catch was being dried and powdered as fertilizer just to find some use for it. As Steinbeck wrote in the prologue to Cannery Row in 1945: “The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats, and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty.” And then by the early 50s the fish stocks suddenly collapsed close to zero and the whole industry just closed down.

Sea Nettle jellyfish: Monterey Aquarium (photo by Omnicentrix from Wiki Commons)

Sea Nettle jellyfish: Monterey Aquarium (photo by Omnicentrix from Wikipedia Commons)

For years the canneries – rough corrugated metal sheds – stood rusting, a testament to American greed. But visit it now and it’s a tourist destination anew and an eco-tourist one at that. The whale watching feeds off the crowds drawn to the Monterey Bay aquarium since 1984. Steve Packard – one of the founders of the computer giant Hewlett-Packard – spent millions to build one of the greatest marine research institutes in the world. In giant tanks sunfish, shark and turtles cruise by. Clouds of jellyfish as exotic as aliens, with names to match, egg-yolk, flower-hat and moon are framed in tanks with dramatic lighting like the celebrity attractions they are.

Further down the coast, past Big Sur, Hearst castle looms on a hilltop over the small town of San Simeon – an enduring symbol from the same age of a different kind of environmental arrogance. Its billionaire builder, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, inspired the film Citizen Kane. The mansion built to house his binge purchases of Gothic church pews, medieval ceilings and tapestries is a charmless though fascinating folly. In 1957 only 6 years after his death his family handed it over to the state to be run as a California Monument museum in lieu, one assumes of massive tax liabilities. Now as California struggles with a third successful year of severe drought, I was among the visitors rather cynical at having to pay 25 dollars to use stinking portable toilets while the luxury rose gardens in this symbol of arrogance were lovingly watered.

On a visit to John Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas, just 12 miles inland from Monterey, was ample chance to ponder these strange environmental contraditions further. Steinbeck was fascinated by the relationship between humans and the environment in this magical corner of California. The Salinas valley is still America’s salad bowl. But I saw fields of kale and lettuce, being watered all day in the sapping heat by giant sprinklers and tended by hunched over Latino labourers.

By the time I got to Los Angeles that there were shiny Tesla all-electric cars to try out in the fancy Santa Monica showroom. LA and the car. Don’t start me. But I kept thinking of Cannery Row. Inside the aquarium they’ve kept the giant cannery machines that boiled and steamed and sealed the sardines in tins. It’s a bit macabre in a way. All those living fish in a place that used to slice and dice them. But it’s a more honest reminder too, of the power of humans to learn to respect what it used to destroy.

Further reading/sources

Monterey Bay Aquarium website

John Steinbeck literary centre website


Posted in Books, Business/Economics, Culture, Environment, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On The Road with Buddha: The Prince Who Walked Out of His Fairy Tale



What happens when a prince walks away from his kingdom? I love the symbolism and and dream like metaphors of fairy stories. So  a “real life” one is all the more intriguing.

I’d been fascinated with the story of Siddartha, the prince who became the Buddha. Especially as the faith he founded could be seen not to be a faith. Was it about God or not? Why did it lose its power in India; the country of its birth? And what to make of all those images of him? In the early years Buddha was represented by symbols  — a foot print, a wheel, or the tree under which he attained enlightenment. The statues could seem to be idols to a saint, or even a god, especially when covered with gold.

So with producer Anthony Denselow, with whom I’d made the Something Understood about Transience, I decided it was time to look at the man behind the figure.

Siddhartha was a real person; born in what’s now Nepal the sixth century BC.  Hindu astrologers predicted he would be a great emperor or a great sage. His father fearing the latter, ensured he was raised as a master of martial arts, diplomacy and languages, and kept away from any sign of the suffering in the world outside. The pali canon of texts from Sri Lanka, about his life and acts weren’t written down till about two hundred years after he died.

We explore the story of his life which I view as a fairy tale in reverse.  For this handsome prince, happily married with a son and raised to rule, the happy ending is only a beginning of a journey.  He may have been reconciled eventually to the wife and child he abandoned but the idea that you could walk out on worldly life including  family is deeply troubling.


We all think we know the Buddha. Those serene smiling images we see in holiday brochures about Thai and Cambodian temples. Or decorate our homes with. This is the one (above) in my living room. I bought it a few years ago from an Indian market at the Royal Festival Hall on impulse having previously always slightly sneered at those who used his image as home decor. And it was because of that smile. The vendor told me she sourced it in Thailand where the sculptors say they meditate before carving to try to capture the visual idea of nirvana or enlightenment.

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Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote a fascinating book about the Buddha, an extract of which is in the programme. We look at the appeal in the West and how the message of Buddhism was adopted and perhaps distorted in the hippie era. I spent the summer driving down the same California coast as Kerouac via Big Sur and was struck by how many Buddhist temples, churches and images I came across from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In fact  what should I encounter in the Warner Brothers Studio tour props lot than this Buddha,  as part of a “ready to rent” Eastern set.

In the rather naff millionaires’ playground town of Carmel, full of petrolheads for a luxury classic car show, there was even a copy of the Buddha’s Teachings alongside the Gideon Bible in the hideous ripoff motel. It’s not surprising Buddhism in the West can sometimes seem like a lifestyle choice for people rich enough not to have to worry about money.

So how do you reconcile worldly power with the spiritual path of detachment?  As Buddhism grew in its early years it played its part in the complex worldly politics of ancient North India. There are many stories about his interactions with kings as he travelled around the regions, as a kind of spiriual advisor.  A jealous cousin within his monastic following,  plotted against him. In the programme we didn’t have time to explore the stories of Buddhist Emperors Bimbisara or Ashoka, which is a shame, as I think the real life politics against which the Buddha’s life played out are fascinating. And this is the text of what we couldn’t fit in the final edit:


Siddhartha became a great teacher.  But Ashoka, who lived 200 years later, became a great emperor; uniting Northern India for the first time. His wheel adorns the Indian flag today and it’s incredible to think that the message of the Buddha and the creation of a world religion might have been wiped out altogether but for him.

Ashoka renounced violence after coming across the Buddha’s message and, like Siddhartha, he seems to have experienced a key moment in which he lost peace of mind: When he witnessed the carnage after his conquest of Kalinga in the 13th year of his reign:

“A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported,” states Ashoka, “a hundred thousand were slain in the war. In addition, many hundreds of thousands of innocent people suffered grievously from ‘violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones … and from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives.’ This widespread suffering weighed ‘heavily on the mind of his sacred majesty,’ continues Ashoka. ‘Hence arises the remorse of His Sacred Majesty for having conguered Kalinga’ …The war drum, bheri-ghosa, would be stilled, and in its place dharma-ghosha, the drum of virtue, would be beaten.”

Ashoka went on to establish the world’s first welfare state building dispensaries and houses of rest. But I was again left troubled reading how his children all asked to leave to become monks and nuns. He was left alone — Dharmashoka – honoured for his devotion to duty — with no heir.

How to live as a king with Buddhism? And how to live with Buddhism in this consumer age?

There are some interesting answers to that provided by some of our readings. And I’m especially delighted that the marvellously talented actors David Yip and Davina Perera agreed to do the readings.

I hope you enjoy it and that it might get you to view the next Buddha statue you see in a fresh way.

Several listeners have asked about the final poem not listed in readings on the programme page. It’s by the 13th century Zen monk Daikaku.


Whether you are going or staying or sitting or lying down, 
the whole world is your own self. 
You must find out 
whether the mountains, rivers, grass, and forests 
exist in your own mind or exist outside it. 
Analyze the ten thousand things, 
dissect them minutely, 
and when you take this to the limit 
you will come to the limitless, 
when you search into it you come to the end of search, 
where thinking goes no further and distinctions vanish. 
When you smash the citadel of doubt, 
then the Buddha is simply yourself.

Something Understood: The Prince Who Walked Out of His Fairytale was on Radio 4 on Sunday August 31st and on i-player at this link for 7 days afterwards.

All photos copyright Samira Ahmed.  No reuse without permission. Comic covers/photos from my collection of  ACK comics.

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