Plotting Paradise: A journey through medieval maps and the mind



Strains of Paradise may start with medieval maps and the Garden of Eden, but producer Anthony Denselow and I didn’t want to shy away from difficult questions too.  So we ask a Muslim theologian about the power of a highly sexual Islamic concept of paradise so beloved by murdering jihadists. Incidentally are 72 virgins really a mistranslation of 72 raisins? And the very political and current row over Britain as a paradise for economic migrants, launching daily attempts to get here from “The Jungle” in Calais.

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

Diwan-e-Khas, Red Fort, Delhi

But we begin our journey in the British Library with keeper Peter Barber, looking at images of medieval maps that place Eden as a physical place separate from heaven – a bubble of perfection. You can see it in Hereford’s famous Mappa Mundi above; Adam and Eve within,  showing the 4 rivers including the Tigris and the Euphrates that locate Paradise in modern day Iraq. Persians and their Mughal emperors builts walled gardens across their empire – creating private courtly paradises within their palaces such as Delhi’s Red Fort. It was prevalent in medieval courtly manuscripts and clearly inspired CS Lewis’ Christian walled garden with its healing fruit trees in The Magician’s Nephew.

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Nico Muhly’s haunting music for the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery of Richard II sets the scene for Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt “this sceptr’d isle” speech from his play about the monarch. The suserration of the angels’ wings evoked in the strings of a viola da gamba.

Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain, most famously used on the soundtrack of the  Depression era film O Brother Where Art Thou? conveys a bittersweet vision of Paradise. A hobo’s vision. I’m making a partner programme on The Other Place (Hell, Limbo, Purgatory) to come in the autumn.

Something Understood: Strains of Paradise is on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday August 30th at 6am, 1130pm and iplayer for a month after

Further listening/reading

My Spotify list of featured music – (with a substitution piece for Nico Muhly as it’s not commercially available)

Nico Muhly on his music for the Wilton Diptych – You can hear more of it and listen to him talk to me about it on Front Row (July 2015) – about 3 min in.

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What should we read into bookshelf wallpaper?


This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine in August 2015

I went to a fancy middle class holiday camp the other week. You know the ones. It was fabulous. We did fencing, crossbows, rode Segways and swam every day in a giant sub tropical paradise dome like we were living in a 1970s future world of wholesomeness. Our wooden chalet in the woods had a games room, equipped with a mini billiards table, chessboard, and a gaming console that could also play dvds. There were big bean bags to lie around on. There was even a real fire place. But the walls of the games room were covered with wallpaper of fake bookshelves with piles of old books to replicate something that was naggingly missing.

I am fascinated by the growing ubiquity of fake bookshelf wallpaper. I’ve seen it line coffeehouses and hotel work spaces for guests. At the same time I’ve seen a private club advert promise a “bespoke” library for its luxury membership price. With actual old books.


As a kid of the Atari age (I still have my first Pong game if you can find me an analogue monitor to plug it into) I feel no instinctive distrust of digital technology. This spring I had floor to ceiling bookshelves made for the 4 walls of an entire room. I felt childishly excited and a grownup at the same time. Sometimes I carry such ludicrous sized review hardbacks around for work I worry they’re like dinosaurs – a Darwinian extinction is inevitable. My unease is genuine. I love them. Why does it feel to me like physical books (and the concentration their use requires) are being fetishized and threatened at the same time?

Andrew Male deputy editor of Mojo magazine, pins down my distrust of the wallpaper: “It’s the iconography of our “I love books!” age without the weight/threat of the books themselves. It somehow feels similar to new London flats inheriting the cool cultural trappings of the buildings they replaced.”

Photo copyright: The

Photo copyright: The

If you go to the Roundhouse in London this summer, you’ll see books used with real power in Penny Woolcock’s amazing “Utopia” installation. Inspired by Thomas More’s book of a future world, she’s created an urban dystopian theme park. An unashamedly left wing, political version of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. A jeep has ramraided the “T. More bookseller” and piles of real books are spilling out the back, and falling off shelves inside. Projected voices of real young men and women who’ve fallen foul of the law, often born to drug addicted or violent parents, speak of how books have changed them. One discovered Plato’s Republic while in prison.

Woolcock told me, aware of the irony, how they had to buy books by the yard to furnish the set. Browsing them is a delight. Among them are loads of remaindered massmarket hardbacks missing dustjackets: Danielle Steele, James Patterson, Dean Koontz. The kind of authors who get sneered at in highbrow news reviews. But who are read voraciously by millions of readers who love reading. I have no snobbery about that. I once met a Lebanese SF novelist who had been given Doctor Who paperbacks as a child. She didn’t know about the TV series, just read them as adventures of this interesting character and look where it took her.

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In, the market house in my local town, made over for vintage style craft sellers, one stall holder sells handbags made out of just such cheap and cheerful hardbacks. They’ve ripped all the pages out and sewed up the sides with cloth, fixing chain handles over the top. I can’t object logically. It is a kind of recycling. Yet like vinyl records warped into bowls, or album sleeves and blown up orange Penguin covers mounted as art, I feel an instinctive revulsion. See also the Cath Kidston window display featuring books with ripped off covers and titles; possibly remaindered and heading for the dump anyway, but still mutilated.

Like those London shell buildings I’ve watched over the decades – cleared of civic services or industry or annoying poor tenants – with their innards ripped out to be remade as hollow symbols of luxury living or business. The Shoe Factory, The School House, trading on the civic pride, industry and philanthropy in many cases that built them.

In the 70s & 80s adults sneered at a lot of books teens read. Choose Your Own Adventures or cash-in film novelisations. I have still only read, never seen 1977’s The Incredible Melting Man, incidentally. But such trashy books offer the best metaphor for what I see. An alien predator destroys its host and occupies the shell of the body while a few voices urge society to pay heed to an impending, incomprehensible but irreversible disaster.

Further listening/reading

Penny Woolcock on the making of Utopia at the Roundhouse (R4 Front Row Aug 2015)

Andrew Male on Eric Clapton’s Bookshelf

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Leaving home: The 60s and getting out


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.


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


(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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”



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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