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

BUDDHA ACK BIMBISARA

UPDATED SEPT 2

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.

BUDDHA HOME

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:

BUDDHA ACK ASHOKA

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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Richard Dawkins & the humanist’s dilemma: When faced with Islamic State does “moderate” religious discrimination really matter?

Interviewing Richard The trouble with believers.. And twitter. Interviewing Richard Dawkins at the World Humanist Congress 2014. Photo courtesy of British Humanist Association

The trouble with believers.. And twitter. Interviewing Richard Dawkins at the World Humanist Congress 2014. Photo courtesy of British Humanist Association

This piece first appeared in The Big Issue magazine – journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors UK wide or subscription.

Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford has 3 and a half miles of books. It’s a wonderful place. The deputy manager told me how they staged Doctor Faustus in its stacks recently. Nearly 25 years ago as a student, I was there for what turned out to be Salman Rushdie’s last public reading from The Satanic Verses. I was the only person to ask whether he feared his Muslim background meant he was going to be treated in a way no other writer would. Rushdie said no, and it’s highly probable he believed it at the time.

It felt like a a singular madness. When I agreed a year ago to chair some discussions for the World Humanist Congress, in Oxford in August, it was as a favour to the head of the British Humanist Association (BHA), who’d introduced me to the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the weekend turned out to be a thought-provoking chance to connect what happened after that 1988 book reading to the global fight by humanists, for a moral framework of human rights without religion.

Among more than a thousand delegates in Oxford I met Norwegians concerned at how they felt the Lutheran church had pushed to cement its state influence after the Anders Brevik massacre.

Exeter University Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou described how some of her students, funded by American Christian fundamentalist organisations, waste hours of teaching time challenging her expert authority on the historical origins of Bible texts.

Babu Gogineni, a leading humanist campaigner in India against superstition, which is embedded in public Hindu life, recounted stories that made you laugh — such as embarrassing astrologers on national TV for their failed predictions; but also incidents that made the audience sit in sombre silence — the regularity with which Dalit (untouchable) caste Hindus were harassed and tortured for “witchcraft” by landowners. Babu told me how the police stopped him boarding his flight to the conference and held him for just long enough to remind him that they can make his life difficult.

Leo Igwe from Nigeria, has been beaten up for his relentless campaign against Christian witchhunters who starve and torture children. All these years after the murder of Victoria Climbie as a result of just such beliefs, Leo pointed out that a prominent Nigerian witch hunter was set to come to London in a widely publicised visit.

Valentin Abgottspon, a school teacher from Switzerland might not have faced any violence, but his fight to enforce the law protecting freedom of belief by taking down a crucifix in his classroom, exposed the hypocrisy of a nation which likes to claim it’s a bastion of human rights. His challenge to the Catholic Church and its privileged support from the supposedly secular state authorities embodied the biggest question of the Congress: Does every case of religious discrimination matter equally?

After all, the Congress was taking place as Yazidi minority Iraqis were starving to death or being buried alive in the desert by Islamic State fighters. So who better to ask than Richard Dawkins, vice chairman of the BHA at the Congress, whose belief in logical thinking and his related provocative pronouncements on twitter have led to huge controversy? I put to him Nobel prize winning physicist Peter Higgs’ criticism — that it was a mistake to pick on moderate religious believers and alienate potential allies in the war against extremists.

Dawkins said watching the horrors of Islamic extremism, he did wonder if Christianity was a useful “bulwark” against it. But he also felt moderate faith leaders, by upholding core superstitions, ultimately made it possible for extremists to flourish.

In the Q&A one prominent ex-Muslim pulled an easy stunt by ripping up a paper home made Islamic State flag with a flourish to great applause. Afterwards another ex-Muslim told me how one delegate had suggested to him that someone should try to invent an anti-Muslim “vaccine”. An isolated moment, but revealing of human nature at a conference all about the danger of sweeping prejudices.

Photo copyright: Samira Ahmed

Oxford by dusk during the 2014 World Humanist Congress Photo copyright: Samira Ahmed

The conference theme you see was building a twenty first century Enlightenment. Europeans during the 17th century one proved capable of advocating human rights while widely tolerating slavery, child labour and the subjugation of women as subhuman and the property of men. Today Western leaders condemn Islamic State while remaining politically close to the Gulf States from where much of their ideology and funding is believed to emanate. I bought a book in Blackwells before I left by the novelist and humanist EM Forster. That bloke who said, “Only connect”.

Further reading

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and humanism 

 

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A brief encounter with Richard Attenborough & his best friend Bryan Forbes

When the British Film Institute ran a Richard Attenborough retrospective back in the early 2000s, Sir Richard came to introduce every screening. The gesture seemed to capture his enthusiasm, modesty, kindness and warmth for cinema and audiences. At the screening of Seance on a Wet Afternoon he and the film’s director, fellow producer/actor Bryan Forbes, walked in together right alongside me with their wives and sat in a row.

Richard Attenborough had featured in the best of my many mad pregnancy dreams a few months earlier. (I’d dreamt my waters had broken as my husband and I were walking down a country lane,  but  Dickie appeared in his Rolls Royce and jumped out and said, “Don’t worry luvvie, I’ll get you to hospital.” He was brilliant.) Obviously none of this ever happened outside of my head, so as we walked in my husband quietly but firmly grabbed my arm and whispered, “You are NOT going to tell him about your dream.”

In introducing the film Sir Richard paid generous tribute to the talents of his co-star Kim Stanley, describing honestly, but kindly, the real problems with working with her. But what stood out was what he said next. Looking at his friends and life partner in the audience and gesturing with his arm towards them Sir Richard smiled and said something like: “Bryan Forbes is one of Britain’s most talented directors and filmmakers. He’s really not been given the credit he should for what he’s done for cinema, for British film. All these remarkable films he’s made.  He’s sitting there with our wives. And I’m so lucky that he’s my best friend still after all these years and we have all been friends together and still are.”

It’s a memory I particularly cherish when I watch his convincing performances as twisted characters, in Brighton Rock, London Belongs To Me (a personal favourite) and as the serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place. There was also a sadness in looking back to that screening, because of the loss of his daughter and granddaughter in the Boxing Day Tsunami a few years later.

For all the great films he directed, (Young Winston still resonates for its perspective on British military campaigns in Afghanistan) I will always have the softest of spots for Richard Attenborough, the actor, aged twenty four, playing the bright sixteen year old  inner city youth sent on an experiment in social mobility to private school as The Guinea Pig. 

Goodbye.

Mr Attenborough changes trains and social class

The Guinea Pig (1948)

 

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A Smashing Time: Murray Melvin on busting taboos in the 60s

One to One with the finest profile in British acting. At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. That’s the original model for the stage set of A Taste of Honey.

 This is one of the most read pieces on my website but the link had stopped working so I’ve re-posted it here. The interview is still available to listen on the iplayer One to One link just below.

For the third of my One to Ones for Radio 4 I wanted a Missing Angle on the golden age of British theatre and cinema — from the late 50s to the early 70s. You can listen to it here. I’d met Murray Melvin together with Rita Tushingham to talk about the 50th anniversary of their break through performances in A Taste of Honey and was struck by the openness of his sympathetic portrayal, of what was widely regarded as a gay man in the 1961 film version. He won the Cannes Best Actor prize the following year. This was at a time when Rank matinee idols like Dirk Bogarde were very much in the closet, and homosexuality was still very much a criminal offence.

Melvin in HMS Defiant (1962)

As a lifelong fan of 60s British film I was fascinated by Melvin’s journey through the cinema of the time. There he was climbing the rigging with Dirk Bogarde in the old fashioned epic HMS Defiant the year after Honey. It’s like watching some kind of post modernist mash up; the delicate black and white kitchen sink realist actor wandering onto the set of an unintentionally camp technicolor Napoleonic historical drama, trapped in the social and sexual mores of the pre-war age. An even more obviously subversive performance followed: Watch him as the sensitive best friend of misogynist Michael Caine in Alfie.

Melvin in Alfie (1966)

In our interview Melvin recalled how Bogarde told him he’d done more for “the cause” — more to promote gay rights — in one scene in A Taste of Honey, than the whole of Victim, Bogarde’s strangely evasive tale of homosexual blackmail. Though regarded as a hugely brave and important drama at the time, Victim doesn’t quite dare allow its leading man to be actually gay. The conversation took place at a BAFTA dinner. Both actors were nominated for their roles.

Surveying death and filth: Oliver Reed with Melvin in The Devils (1972)

Melvin seems to have thrived on working with mavericks and outsiders, such as Stanley Kubrick and the late Ken Russell. He loved the discipline of Kubrick’s demands as he composed his images. And his elegant profile graced many of “Captain Russell’s” productions. If we look a little sombre in that photo at the top of this post, it’s because we’d just been talking about how he’s still haunted by the horror of smashing Oliver Reed’s legs in the torture scene in The Devils (just released in a remastered and restored DVD). Melvin said he threw up between takes.

Miss Littlewood and the Theatre Royal defy 60s urban planners.This photo hangs in the theatre bar today.

His affection for Joan Littlewood, who took him on at her groundbreaking Theatre Royal in Stratford in East London is undiminished. He refers to her in the interview as “Miss Littlewood”. She took him on as a general “dogsbody”, making tea and sweeping the stage. It’s a way in to drama that he regrets has all but disappeared. And who, he wonders, can afford to take a risk on un funded drama degrees now except the wealthy? We did the interview at the theatre, where Melvin is now curating the incredible archive. All her books on theatre are beautifully shelved and the one hundred year plus history of the venue is being carefully researched and preserved. Melvin has overseen the restoration of the grand Victorian bar and promotes drama courses there for local children, in what remains one of the most deprived parts of the capital. He remains loyal to her vision for championing inclusion and working class art. He talks with passion about the impact of government policy on the arts and the prospects for the young. A new generation of fans have discovered his breakthrough role since he played a memorable villain in Torchwood. One young man even came up to him at a Dr Who convention to thank him for the portrayal. And with that trained balletic poise he is still, to my eye, the most beautiful profile in British acting.

You can listen to my Radio 4 One to One interview with Murray Melvin here.

Further reading

A Taste of Honey: 50 years on. An interview with Murray Melvin and Rita Tushingham

 

 

 

 

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The curious idea of museums

IWM First World War Galleries

The new WW1 galleries (Photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Journalism worth paying for.

What are museums for these days? Are collections passé? Northampton City Council’s decision to sell off an ancient Egyptian statue to fund a museum extension, after striking a secret multimillion pound deal with the benefactor’s family, outraged many local citizens. They’re unconvinced that arts should be measured and managed only for the economic “value” of what you can buy with the cash.

Before the urge to “engage” and “outreach” meant ripping out displays in favour of button pressing, funny animated character narrations (Stephen Fry as a “hilarious” gold bullion bar in the Bank of England museum is a particularly jarring example) and giant soft play areas, I loved the labyrinthine nature of old institutions: Glass cases full of giant crystals and meteorites that filled a whole Gothic gallery of the Natural History Museum; halls of terrifying and exotic Pacific island jade weaponry, conch shell armour and shrunken heads in ethnography collections from London’s Horniman to Newcastle and Berlin’s Dahlem Museums; and the strange diving bells and aircraft that still wait for the curious in the further reaches of the Science Museum.

It’s true, that far too many museums had musty rooms, testament only to a love of labelling ordering and collecting. Just how many scale models of merchant navy ships made out of matchsticks does any museum need? But in the race to draw visitors used to theme parks and video gaming, what has been lost? For every success such as York’s Jorvik Centre, purpose built with a “ride” complete with smells and sounds to bring Viking England alive, there has been a local museum which opted to replace rich collections of real objects that carry stories and histories, with lights and dial displays that broke within a couple of years and looked worn and tired.

So what could be more challenging than the once in a generation refurbishment and building of new World War One Galleries in London’s Imperial War Museum? A Museum of which it was once said its three biggest problems in attracting a broader audience, were the 3 words in its name. Designed by the same firm behind the atmospheric refurbishment of the fascinating Churchill War Rooms) the gallery combines audio and visual effects with objects carefully selected for purpose. I look at a large unscrolled map of Europe spread across a dark wooden desk. It comes to life: animated figures with the heads of beasts leap and fight across it; wearing imperial uniforms and helmets. It’s magical and satirical and engaging. It makes me want to know more about the complex imperial posturing and arrogance that sparked the war.

The IWM’s historian James Taylor says the display was inspired by the animations in Tony Richardson’s 1968 film of The Charge of The Light Brigade – a film which saw the new talents of British social realism turn their deference-destroying attitude to British history. Said Taylor, “The brief was this is not just putting a book on the walls”.

A grey military coat of the Kaiser stands over the map – an ominous symbol of his uniform-loving presence in the pre-war mind of most Europeans. In front of him, a clockwork dreadnought toy – a reminder of how Germany’s toy industry fed Britain’s middle class fascination with naval might and national power. Displays on the Home Front run in parallel to the front line displays. Carefully chosen and enlarged photographs of thousands of shells in a munitions factory – disappearing into the horizon emphasise the scale of the support and industry that kept the war going year after year.

A case of simple rifles with bayonets, of the kind used at the Somme, seems a rare old-style display. And then Taylor points out how they’re carefully arranged in sight of a massive German machine gun, to show their uselessness in the face of mechanized slaughter.

IWM First World War trench

WW1 trench (photo copyright Imperial War Museum)

The walk through trench (above) is carefully stylized; not an “experience”. It uses silhouettes, a giant tank and sound to emphasise the claustrophobia and the greyness. At the end footage of shell shocked soldiers plays on a small screen. Wide-eyed men twitching and shaking, hiding under their hospital beds.

Of all the objects one stood out: The Manchester Guardian’s giveaway map issued to lucky readers at the start of the enthusiastically-supported Gallipoli campaign. For anyone who has felt unease at some of the plucky Tommy nostalgic commemorative news coverage of recent months, the Imperial War Museum, is proof of how these institutions can still tell us so much through the objects they keep.

Further reading/listening

War, Woods and WW1 (Radio 3 Free Thinking special programme June 2014)

Imperial War Museum website

Northampton Museum’s Sekhemka statue now in private hands (BBC News July 2014)

The Big Issue magazine

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Why doesn’t Wonder Woman wear a mask?

Limited Collectors' Edition JLA  VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

My bicentennial Limited Collectors’ Edition JLA VOL5 NO C46 AUG-SEPT 1976

A thing I wrote for a recent Radio 4 programme pilot about “masked men”. Posted here today in honour of Linda Carter’s 63rd birthday.

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In bicentennial year 1976 on first trip to the USA, I first confronted the conundrum of Wonder Woman and masks in two companion comics I bought.

While most of her male superhero colleagues were white collar middle class drones, hiding their Don Draper-ness behind masked all in ones, Wonder Woman, with no mask, in her garish stars and stripes pants seemed to be hiding nothing and everything.

An illegal immigrant from some mysterious place. Only Superman shares an understanding and a mask free disguise in a pair of geek glasses. Wonder Woman’s mask was being smart and plain. Apart from a brief 60s Emma Peel style experiment as a karate kicking mod boutique owner, her alter ego Diana Prince was, depending on the era, a drab military intelligence officer, a multilingual tour guide at the United Nations, and only in the mid 70s getting some status as a UN “agent” of some kind. A talented worker bee in a state hive. In an office full of male colonels or detectives Diana Prince is often in the background, quietly overhearing crucial information.

Aged 8 I first saw Wonder Woman in a mask. In one comic, a white mask sent by an enemy attaches itself to her face. But in the companion issue, a reissue of one of creator William Marston’s original bondage themed stories from 1943, Wonder Woman is tied up in a leather gimp mask and heavy chains to try to escape from a tank of water; Houdini Style. It’s all for charity. A twisted and schizophrenic society girl, Priscilla Rich, aka The Cheetah, ties her up with her own unbreakable lasso.

Wonder Woman escapes of course, tearing off that leather mask with her teeth, and maintains a kind of chaste innocence throughout. Like a lot of women who began work in World War 2, she just gets on with things, whatever the male idiocy around her. And a battle is set up in the comics of controlled and seething female emotions that can be unleashed for good or ill. There is plenty of testosterone fuelled madness, too. But in the hands of its male writers, Wonder Woman’s mask-less Amazonian super power is balanced by her alter-ego: an invisibility mask of ordinary female-ness. And a lot of bondage imagery.

 

 

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Monty Python’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Photo copyright: via Neil Reading PR

We reviewed the opening night of Monty Python Live (Mostly) on Radio 4’s Front Row on Wednesday with journalist Stephen Armstrong. You can hear it (top item) on that link till Wed 9th July. This is some of the stuff we couldn’t fit in about its aesthetic and my theory that it’s worth comparing to a concept album.

From the moment you see Terry Gilliam’s magnificent red velvet outsize Victorian music hall set design the association with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the visuals of Yellow Submarine is fixed. About the only facts in the jokey programme seemed to be the Pythons’ birthdates –making them pretty much the same age as the Beatles and formed by the same aesthetic influences: music hall songs, the fading Victorian detritus of theatres and costumes, green one pound notes, bowler hats and those weird knotted handkerchiefs British men would wear on their heads at the beach till the 1970s. They now exist only within the nostalgic bubble of the Monty Python TV show. The show is the period piece and acts as a kind of last collective act of living memory.

“It’s rather like the Rolling Stones performing satisfaction,” observed Stephen Armstrong when we discussed it. “No one wants a hiphop version by Mick Jagger. What you want is a note for note rendition of the 60s single you love.” The wheeled on giant boxes — sets of living rooms and offices for the usually sedentary sketches with the performers already seated within  — are bell jar museum displays of long gone studio bound programme making: flying ducks on the wall, dragged up women in hair wraps and curlers, an arid 60s TV science show set. (John Cleese in drag as a strangely taciturn scientist is perhaps his best moment, invoking that gimlet stare for actual humorous effect.)

So the performance is a kind of concept album rendition. Some sketches had been segued quite beautifully – notably the Dead Parrot into the Cheese shop. Terry Gilliam’s surreal animations benefit from being blown up onto the giant screens either side. They still are remarkable art. There is the added poignancy of 4 old men doing the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch and Michael Palin stands out for genuine acting that creates unexpectedly moving moments — notably in the We’re Protestants sketch from The Meaning of Life in which Terry Jones in drag wistfully imagines an active sex life.

If the Dead Parrot sketch is the Python To Be Or Not To Be moment from Hamlet, Palin proves his acting skills again. It sounded totally fresh from him. And his comic timing — knowing exactly when to come in on the downward sweep of audience laughter before it’s quite apparent it’s passed the crest — is the mark of a serious professional we ought to see a lot more of in screen and stage drama.

Eric Idle showed a similarly impressive level of real acting skill (Nudge Nudge fresh and somehow sweetly sad rather than creepy now). Terry Jones seemed delighted to be there, and can still pull off a touching frustrated housewife. Terry Gilliam gurns with good will throughout and  spills his guts impressively from a high wire. John Cleese corpsed a lot and struggled vocally with a hoarseness till well into the second half. Nerves? Recovering from a cold? Weak vocal chords? His strength: the roles that play to coldness and fear (I’m here for an Argument).

The Arlene Phillips dancers were slick but, the Sit On My Face Ballet apart, too often evoked the tired retro feel of Hot Gossip in their sexy underwear by Agent Provocateur as the programme carefuly listed. (All the technical support, in every sense,  has been brought in from the most professional names.) Though the energetic young male singer leading the Finland number was rather a welcome youthful presence, as the once cute Pythons watched him and smiled as if at the ghost of their former selves.

The “camp” songs about mincing sailors seem to have (mostly?) lost their homophobic air. But is that more about modern Britain than about Python? While Carol Cleveland in the same carefully chosen and edited Dollybird roles has similarly neutralised the sometimes unpleasant sting of the originals.

The Blackmail song about the tabloid press and I Like Chinese, despite some updated lyrics about copyright and economic boom exposed their weakness. What after all is sparky about the Top Gear presenters being blackmailed for sleaziness in the face of Jeremy Clarkson’s mealy mouthed  N-word “apology” expressed through his tabloid column? The best sketches were the absurdist or the high brow (the original philosophers’ football match was played out on the film screen).

The little insert with celebrity scientists filmed on the backs in Cambridge seemed a nod to the Oxbridge intellectual seedbeds in which Monty Python sprouted. The “merch-o-meter” animation that ticked on the big screen on the interval captured the whole apologetic tone of the set up and its money making that’s characterised this operation ever since the original press conference. A clever way  — Boris Johnson-esque even — in playing the buffoon with a razor sharp focus on keeping on target. There was no shouting of punchlines, but they are under the skin of the national psyche. We were all thinking them as part of a giant mind cloud.

Stephen Armstrong: “The way they interacted it felt very warm to me. By the end when they come on in their white tuxedos [incidentally another image that evokes the Beatles - their Magical Mystery Tour film ] basically what it is: It’s 5 old men having fun in front of a bunch of people and it’s hard to be angry with that and it’s hard to be too critical. They’ve probably pulled it off – largely the same broad joke for the last 40 years.”

So it was a happening. A sixties’ “you had to be there” vibe. To see the guys do their thing. To remember Graham Chapman. And only the meanest curmudgeon could begrudge the gentle, nostalgic and generous mood of the night. In fact all you need is love.

Front Row: BBC Radio 4 review of Monty Python Live (Almost) Available till July 9th

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To go or not to go: The freakonomics of the school reunion

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Magazine: Journalism worth paying for. Available from street vendors across the UK or by subscription.

“My generation thought we’d fix the world for free. We were LBJ (Lyndon B J cohnson) technocrats.” Waiting for other guests to arrive for a radio programme, I’ve got chatting to the unassuming social scientist who is smiling at the memory of youthful ambition. Professor Steven Levitt is the economist half of the hugely successful Freakonomics partnership, with journalist Stephen Dubner, that’s spawned a range of global best selling books which have made economics cool and fun. I don’t think he’d mind being described as the geekier of the two. He’s also professor of economics at the University of Chicago and runs a consultancy that offers the Freakonomics style of advice to governments as well as corporations.

But we are discussing a dilemma. Levitt and I graduated the same year 1989 and he is wondering about going back to his undergraduate university reunion. It’s not any reunion either. It’s the 25th. And it’s not any University. It’s Harvard.

Harvard likes high achievers. Every year it produces a special bound leather volume – the Red Book – for which alumni are invited to submit their life updates. Then, those who care to, can buy a copy and play the Gloat and Envy game.

Levitt has always steered clear. He shakes his head and admits “I’ve never gone back.” But this year all his friends, his “geekiest” friends, say he should, he must. Because they love that he’s one of them and he made it. So what did the generation of ‘89 go on to do?

As at Britain’s elite universities, many of Levitt’s Harvard contemporaries went into high finance as Masters of the Universe on Wall Street or in the City of London. Levitt says highly lucrative corporate law was the biggest draw. But age and inner yearning do strange things. Levitt says, over the years, he picked up on the grapevine the sense that “corporate lawyers also seem to be the unhappiest.”

“You know what was most surprising?” says Levitt, recalling the expectation that they’d go off and change the world: “How many of my year went back to Cleveland Ohio. Or wherever and became lawyers and doctors and professionals in their home towns.”

Levitt was pinpointing, in an entirely positive way, the gap between the Harvard bombast students heard all the time from the institution, and the reality. To take a great education and use it in one’s community wherever that might be was something to be admired.

Those of us who distrust reunions, I suspect, were desperate to get away and uncover our possibilities in a larger world; and have a genuine dislike of being put back in a labelled box.

But others, perhaps those who’d been beauty queens and the coolest dudes, secretly mourn the loss of their student days. John Waters famously tracked down the  buddy Deane Baltimore TV show high school dancers, still sharing that bond in their late 30s for a brilliant and  sweet article for Baltimore magazine that inspired his film Hairspray.  Less positively and yet to be analysed by the Freakonomists, has been the measurable Friends Reunited/Facebook effect since the late 1990s on divorce rates for those seeking an escape from middle age.

By chance I found myself at a reunion of sorts a few days after my conversation with Levitt. It was an award ceremony for alumni from my old girls’ schools association. Yet the highlight was finding myself not with the high-achieving grownups, but in a side-room gossiping with all the sixth formers; even though I am so old that, as one 17 year old told me: “I grew up from a baby watching you on the news!” Before I knew it, and without the excuse of being drunk, I found myself pouring out unrequested life advice for them, Kirsty Allsopp-style. They were polite and let me and I left with a smile for the life of possibilities ahead of them.

So did Levitt go to his Harvard reunion? It seems he did, where according to the website programme they got talks on parenting in a complicated world and from the eminent doctors of their generation on “How to stop things falling off” in your 40s. I hope he writes about it.

I prefer to watch reunions on the screen. The year I left school (1986) was luckily memorialized forever in two great films Romy and Michelle’s High school Reunion and Grosse Pointe Blank. And as Minnie Driver said in the latter: “Everybody’s coming back to take stock of their lives. You know what I say? Leave your livestock alone.”

Further reading/listening

The Forum: BBC Word Service (Jun 2014): Challenging assumptions  The programme recording that spawned this post.

The Harvard Red Book: New York Times feature (2012)

Harvard 1989 25th reunion website

Jailed: the executive who asked a hitman to kill her ex (Daily Mail 2007) – A Friends Reunited linked crime I covered as a reporter for Channel 4 News

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (Chapter 9 is the article on the Buddy Deane dancers)

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The Outer Limits: A fantastic voyage

“To God there is no zero. I still exist.” – Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man screenplay (1957)

The summer solstice  has just passed — marking the extreme tipping point of the earth’s axis and the longest day. It was the inspiration for this week’s Something Understood programme for BBC Radio 4.  I wanted to explore the human urge to push at the limits of what is physically possible: In space, deep in the oceans and within the submicroscopic world, It was in the 50s and 60s that films and books seemed to revel in fantasies of  inner space, in such films as The Fantastic Voyage and Richard Matheson’s book and film of The Shrinking Man. (Spoiler alert: The programme features a reading from the very end of the book.)

There was even a theme park ride — Disneyland’s Journey into Inner Space — that claimed to shrink you inside a water molecule. Aged just 8 when I rode it, I remember holding my hand up in the darkness and wondering if it might really be true. It was the last time I was ever fooled by such a stunt.

The Shard in London proves a useful starting point to contemplate human arrogance. But The Tower of Babel from Genesis seems a more ambivalent story, about trying to block the instinctive human pursuit of knowledge, too. And pushing at the limits of human knowledge and experience is what the programme celebrates.

Dr Kevin Fong from University College London offers insights from his work on medical extremes with astronauts at NASA and with free divers — who have continued to break each set of new defined parameters of medical safety to plunge without breathing apparatus. There’s a reading from the biologist William Beebe who was the first to plunge to new depths in a bathysphere

And the programme features music pushing at the limits of sound; played on instruments made of ice, and the vocal chords pushed to the outer limits: notably Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria from the The Magic Flute.

The outer limits.. Investigating skyscrapers, outer space, deep oceans & the incredible shrinking man for R4. from Samira Ahmed on Vimeo.

Hinduism’s use of stories to impart cosmic ideas about time and cycles of creation and destruction has an especial affinity with concepts of modern cosmology and particle physics. There’s even a statue of Lord Shiva at the Large Hadron collider in Cern.  In the programme I explore the story of the 3 main gods of Hinduism – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — searching for the source of a Pillar of Light that stretches vertically up into infinite space and down deep into the infinite ocean.  Superficially it’s a simple tale of rivalry as Vishnu and Brahma race in opposite directions to be the first to find the starting point. But it’s clearly a cosmic lesson on the scale of the universe and man’s place in it.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Demeter brings us full circle to the promise and loss of the limits of the seasons as the earth tilts each way on its axis and her daughter, Persephone, emerges with the Equinox from the winter of the Underworld in the spring.

Something Understood: The Outer Limits is on Radio BBC 4 on Sunday June 29th at 6am and 1130pm and on this link  and iplay for 7 days after. The programme page has  a playlist of all readings and music. It’s produced by Natalie Steed and is a Whistledown Production.

Further reading

Richard Matheson on the writing of The Shrinking Man

The Shadow of Shiva at Cern

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Arnold Bennett: Edwardian Superstar

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All photos (except film still) copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use without permission

These are photos taken on location for Arnold of the Five Towns, my Radio 4 documentary about why this hugely popular and successful writer has fallen from fashion and why he still speaks to modern Britain. It’s on Monday 23rd June at 4pm and iplayer for 7 days after. Listen here with links to lots of the places we visited. And I wrote a feature about it for the BBC News website too, which features 5 recommended reads for those new to Arnold Bennett. The Clayhanger trilogy is probably my favourite, but I left it off a list aimed at  newcomers. Apologies in advance for those who disagree.

I conceived the programme as a kind of sequel to I Dressed Ziggy Stardust and it’s also produced by the very talented Alice Bloch. Like David Bowie, Arnold Bennett seemed a man from modest roots who focused on making it in London. He dreamed big, taught himself art and music and literature, and became a superstar through talent and hard work; not connections or birth. I’d like to thank all our interviewees, (including those we sadly couldn’t squeeze into the final 27 and half minute edit) in Stoke-on-Trent and London and especially thank The Arnold Bennett Society and Alex Manisty for their time and advice.  It was my English  teacher at Wimbledon High School, the late Ann Kirman, who put The Old Wives’ Tale on her A-level list of Great English Literature for me in 1984, which 30 years later, inspired this programme. Thankyou Mrs Kirman.

On Robert Elms’ BBC London show on Saturday (listen from 40 min 30 sec) in discussing Bennett’s swinging Edwardian London locations,  I ran out of time to mention Myddleton Square – location of Bennett’s remarkable novel Riceyman Steps. I wanted to mention Ken Titmuss does a guided walk of the area, featuring the location.

Further reading/listening

Alice and I will be on Radio Stoke  discussing the programme at about 1210pm on Monday June 23rd.

In Celebration of the Unknown Arnold Bennett (My BBC News Website feature)

What if…? HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and your alternative future (Big Issue Jan 2014)

Arnold Bennett blogspot - great insights into locations, inspiration and the novels

 

 

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