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 which you can explore online below. His story is a fascinating one and I urge you to go and have a look. It’s free. 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, 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:
Celebrating the British made bar that never shrank. (photo: thedrum.com)
I am not keen on those books by apparently very affluent globetrotting authors with a nice life, that tell us to spend less, slow down and focus on the spiritual. In fact I speed-read Carl Honore’s “In Praise of Slow” over an extra shot large mocha in a book shop Starbucks just out of spite.
Something is spiritually amiss in my consumption. I am carrying out an experiment on a Cadbury’s Twirl. Observation: Placed flat on the table the purple and yellow foil packaging with the sealed ends, it looks right. There are two sticks inside. Method: I pick it up and hold it in the palm of my hand. It feels wrong. Oddly unsettling. I put it down. It looks fine. I pick it up and there’s that odd feeling again.
Now you could say, of course, Samira, you KNOW it weighs less, because it’s been in the news over the last 2 years that big brands are cutting pack sizes because of rising costs. But what’s interesting is the psychological effect. We’re not used to feelingcheated. In most Western nations we’ve become surprisingly complacent about trusting the contents of food tins and packets.
In a way it’s remarkable how deep our faith has been in consumer brands, given that charlatans were lacing them with arsenic, chalk, carcinogenic colourings and even the odd human body until the last century. Upton Sinclair’s expose of the Midwestern meatpacking business in his 1906 novel The Jungle, featured a man falling into the meat grinder. However rather than leading to a reform of capitalism (his goal), it primarily led to the first modern food scandal, with a temporary huge fall in sales. But the USA’s love of meat didn’t suffer longterm damage.
And despite a salmonella scandal 7 years ago, that saw the firm fined £1 million pounds for several food safety violations, Cadbury’s has bounced back too.
But now here I am spiritually ill at ease, not over horse in family ready meals, but over the messing with the size of a snack. That’s because confectionery manufacturers now keep telling us they’re making a sincere decision for better customer satisfaction. There’s a whole Facebook campaign about how many segments have disappeared from a Yorkie. It’s happening to jars of peanut butter too – some brands have a cinched in bottom to save several spoonfuls a jar. Sweet firms, such as Cadbury Kraft and Nestle could, I suppose, claim to be contributing to healthy eating by reducing serving sizes, though they don’t quite dare do that. The consumer organisation Which? says companies should just be honest about putting prices up and allow customers to make the choice for themselves.
It was only down to the Office of National Statistics that we had it confirmed in November last year that these effective price rises, from cutting pack weight by up to 10 percent, had contributed to pushing up October inflation from 2.2 to 2.7%.
The comfort from comfort foods is gone, when big corporations play profit-maximising games with the brands we little people buy and the taxes we little people pay; but try to fob it off as their generosity.
Google executive Eric Schmidt recently told the BBC that it was reasonable, through legal tax avoidance schemes, to pay only £6 million of UK tax on UK generated revenues of £2.6 billion in 2011, because the government failed to acknowledge the “totality” of the company’s contribution: “We empower literally billions of pounds of start-ups through our advertising network and so forth. And we’re a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country.” In other words they’re so big that we should be grateful to have them at all.
So what can we do? Many were incensed after Starbuck’s tax-avoiding schemes were revealed, enough to buy their lattes at a different chain. Or even better, a local independent. Then Tesco started up that “local” independent chain Harris and Hoole that confused everybody. And what to do about organic Green and Black’s now they’re owned by Kraft?
When corporations claim to be a force for good, the battle about what’s in the packet really is about ethical weight. It’s not a matter of giving up consuming. It’s about consuming elsewhere. And while finding an alternative to Google and Amazon requires more effort, family-made Tunnock’s caramel wafers (which as celebrated in the above photo, has never reduced bar size) and Montezuma’s British chilli truffles can be a guilt free first step in the fight back against the behemoths.
“A lazy, irresponsible young clerk in provincial Northern England lives in his own fantasy world and makes emotionally immature decisions as he alienates friends and family.” Everyone loves Billy Liar. Apart from whoever wrote imdb’s current bizarrely censorious plot summary above. But when I was making a British social realism landmark programme for Radio 3′s Night Waves back in January it became obvious that it marked a watershed; between the end of those darker dramas such as This Sporting Life, and the frivolous japes of swinging London 60s cinema. And how interesting it might be to explore a film all about Northern male fantasy and ambition from a female perspective.
Oldham-born Helen Fraser was at RADA with Tom Courtenay and starred as Barbara (the repressed one of his 3 girlfriends) in the film of Billy Liar. On the programme yesterday she revealed that Julie Christie joined the cast late; a second choice for the original actress selected (no, she wouldn’t say who). But we had a great time discussing the legacy of the film with historian Melanie Williams. You can listen to it here. And this post covers the other ideas that got cut from the final edit because of time. What’s dated about the film is the sexual politics. The curse of the dollybird, swinging her handbag to a light jazz soundtrack became lazy shorthand for youthful innovation and freshness. Though there are issues with the portrayal of working class women and sex in kitchen sink dramas too. The current DVD cover features a graphic of Helen Fraser’s lacy black basque, (specially made for her, she remembers) filled with the fantasies of Billy Fisher. Fraser remembered feeling very self conscious and finding it very hard to play sexy, in the fantasy sequence where Billy imagines her as a nubile sex goddess, instead of a “not till we’re married” frump. “We had to shoot it three times,” she recalled.
What hasn’t dated is the charm of the documentary style realism of the location shooting. Fraser met her husband, the renowned sound recordist Peter Handford on the set. She told me how groundbreaking was the decision to record their dialogue on location, with the natural ambient sounds filling out a very real sense of place. There are plenty of excellent train sounds,too, not least in the climax at the station — Handford’s speciality. He had recorded the end of the steam age and was to go on to win an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa. Director Schlesinger used that location sound to remarkable effect with the naturalistic dialogue of minor characters in the background. Look out for the remarkable scene near the end where two ageing prostitutes try to chat up a young squaddie in the station buffet.
Rewatching the film since the recession sent youth unemployment rocketing and hopes spirally downwards, what’s most poignant is how booming Bradford was. Cranes everywhere on the skyline, a packed city centre with new supermarkets opening — gently mocked in Schlesinger’s film. Billy’s boss Mr Shadrack (Leonard Rossiter) is keen to embrace the plastic coffins and new technology in the undertaking business. There’s real warmth to the portrayal of the old Bradford characters — Councillor Duxbury and Billy’s mother (the wonderful Mona Washbourne). Fraser in the programme discussed the strange circularity of having played Mrs Fisher on stage recently.
Fraser also pointed out how local extras added such depth and charm to those scenes. The football stadium has terrific closeups of faces on the terraces. It looks so alive and vibrant. Supposedly a dull town our hero is desperate to escape, I notice mainly the full employment — school leavers with money in their pocket to go dancing at the Roxy every Saturday night and a direct regular midnight train service to London. It looks like a modern Billy Liar’s fantasy, not a nightmare.
References to the novelty of “blackie” doctors and postmen are markers of how fast the city’s ethnic profile has changed since 1963, with the impact of Pakistani mill workers and a very overt Islamisation in parts of the city.
Schlesinger’s subsequent Darling, which starred Julie Christie and won Oscars, is the film that really looks dated now. You recognise his trademark skill and wit with adverts, fake newsreel and deluded celebrities giving media interviews. But it’s a cold film about celebrity culture with little sympathy for the heartless wench at the centre of it all. (Incidentally I remember watching it on a nightshift the night after Princess Diana died. BBC schedulers had clearly failed to notice, in their careful sifting of programme plans for sensitive content, that it saw Julie Christie’s swinging model turn into “our very own Princess Diana” trapped in a miserable marriage with an older prince. )
Billy Liar the character dated fast. There was the charm of TV’s The Likely Lads, which bridged the gap of northern boys turning into men (starring Billy Liar’s best friend, co-star Rodney Bewes, as well as Helen Fraser in a supporting role.) But Keith Waterhouse’s novel sequel Billy Liar On The Moon is, in my memory, pretty sorry — a 70s adulterer of the kind you saw in sitcoms and minor British sex comedies. Billy Liar’s whimsy did though feed back into the new post-social realism. Lindsay Anderson’s If… is most remembered for its machine gunning fantasies, first seen in Billy Liar. And there is a moment right near the end which is a powerful throw back to British social realism: at the station milk machine.
But it’s not till Midnight Cowboy that you get Billy Liar’s real sequel and Schlesinger’s masterpiece: a poetic film about a deluded small town boy with a fantasy of making it, not as a script writer, but in the new sexually “liberated” 70s as a stud. He does actually catch the train (or rather the Greyhound bus) to the big city, with heartbreaking consequences. Listen again to BBC Radio 3 Night Waves on Billy Liar. First broadcast May 1st.
I was reading memoirs and novels by the authors taking part in Thursday’s Asia House panel discussion about women, freedom and the Islamic world, when the multimillion pound book deal of Malala Yousafzai was announced. What does the apparent popularity in the West of Muslim women’s misery memoirs and fiction reveal? Why is there such strong criticism of it too? And do such true “inspiring” stories enable governments to avoid responsibility for their wider failings? Supplementary to my Guardian Books post, this is more about the political issues around the Malala story in particular.
The label –“misery memoir” emerged in response to the publishing phenomenon of such international bestsellers as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; harrowing true stories of abuse that proved wildly popular. But while we can disagree about the literary merits of the genre, I don’t recall all that much of a fuss about whether such books were a slur on all Irish or American nationhood or the Catholic faith.
When it comes to women, and women who happen to be Muslim, though is there a different attitude? Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2006 memoir Infidel had important insights from her work as a translator for Dutch social services in Leiden into how politically correct attitudes among the authorities were blighting the lives of Muslim refugee women experiencing domestic violence. Together with the Iranian born-literature professor Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita In Tehran (2003), she suffered vitriolic attacks from some writers and political activists, Muslim and non-Muslim, that their books about their own experiences were somehow “Orientalist” artifacts, serving an American neo-Conservative political agenda in the aftermath of the Iraq War.
On the panel discussion I’m chairing this week about Women, Freedom and the Islamic World will be novelist Elif Shafak, whose novel Honour focuses on an honour killing in a British Kurdish family, and Kamin Mohammadi, whose memoir The Cypress Tree recounts her childhood exile from revolutionary Iran and upbringing in London; similar terrain to Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis. Alongside Shafak and Mohammadi will be Iraqi dissent, Haifa Zangana, who was tortured in Saddam’s prisons. Zangana’s memoir Dreaming of Baghdad (2009) features an astonishingly vicious foreward by Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia University (and well known critic of Reading Lolita in Tehran). In it he writes: “When I read Dreaming of Baghdad, I couldn’t help but wonder: why is it that Iran has not produced a Haifa Zangana in exile, but instead a platoon of self-sexualising memoirists infantilizing a nation, whitewashing the harsh struggles of a people?”
Even if we ignore such attitudes, the uncomfortable reality is that the Western publishing world is fascinating by such tales. It’s argued that they raise the profile of struggles against misogyny and maybe they help fundraise for charitable causes. Weidenfeld and Nicolson has said of its recent book deal with the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala (estimated to be worth about £2 million) that her book, I am Malala, to be published in the autumn, will celebrate the “inspiring story of her determination not be intimidated by extremists.” A few days later Angeline Jolie led the praise at a special New York tribute event, where it was announced that the first grants from the charity, the Malala Fund would be spent on girls’ schooling in her home region of Swat.
Only a few days before Malala’s book deal was announced the most popular feature on the BBC News website had been about another remarkably brave young Pakistani woman, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, headlined “The Pakistani squash star who had to pretend to be a boy.” After years of disguise to continue her training in Waziristan she’s now based in Canada, though still representing Pakistan.
The focus on these “exceptionalist” tales of individual tales of great bravery captures news headlines and, one could argue, enabled politicians to play down the more difficult question: What to do about the millions of women and girls who live in many Muslim countries under the same often worsening conditions, but don’t make headlines? The Pakistani government has mostly escaped direct censure for its failures to protect and promote womens’s rights, and continues to be a very large recipients of British and US aid.
It is reasonable to assume Malala can never return home. However her exceptional status (with a consulate job found for her father and her ongoing medical treatment here) means the Pakistani government avoids any embarrassment and the British government avoids the most undesirable immigration precedent that a Pakistani asylum claim based on gender would establish. In the meantime the Malala charity funds will be distributed discreetly, to avoid the recipients suffering the same Taliban attentions as the schoolgirl and her family.
Perhaps it would be better to compare Malala’s as yet unpublished book to a memoir like Half the Sky (2009). Written by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, its subtitle is How To Change the World – using inspirational stories of great personal suffering by women around the developing world to show models of improved life choices and outcomes.
But as we watch a growing backlash against women’s rights in many Muslim nations, including the new Egypt, Muslim women’s memoirs remain individual stories that testify to the ongoing failure of governments to tackle endemic abuse and discrimination.
Samira Ahmed will take part in “Women, Freedom and the Islamic World” alongside Elif Shafak, Haifa Zangana and Kamin Mohammadi as part of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature. Thursday 18th April, 6.45pm, Asia House, London W1. Tickets: £10 / Concessions £8 / Friends £7. Bookings: 020 7307 5454 / www.asiahouse.org
This is a version of a column that first appeared in The Big Issue. Journalism worth paying for. Every week from street vendors around the UK. Subscriptions are available if you can’t buy on the street. All funds go to the charity.
It was foretold that to base a story on prophecy is lazy. But I’m noticing it more and more in a lot of places it shouldn’t be –in science fiction and fantasy, where anything is possible and imagination should be able to do better than expect you to believe that someone is just special.
There’s the BBC’s Merlin which is rather like Harry Potter. We’re always being told Harry Potter/Merlin is special. He’s the chosen one. Yes he does brave things, but quite frankly, none of them seem as important as the constantly repeated message from everyone he meets that he is THE Harry Potter/Merlin, destined for success and greatness simply because of his birth.
Prophecy is what ruined the second Star Wars trilogy. Remember how well the original Star Wars film started? Luke Skywalker is a bored farm boy, who chooses adventure and finds he can be a great warrior. Then we start getting hints of how his sister might be a great hope, too, just because she’s his sister. By the second trilogy we’re all supposed to accept that it’s special Jedi particle levels in your DNA that get you chosen for training school, and his dad is “born” with great power. Anakin is even born of some implied Virgin birth.
And The Matrix – a wonderful premise just underminded enough to be really annoying, by the idea that the coming of Keanu Reeves “Neo”/The One (get it?) has somehow been prophesied. By who? And how would it be true in a machine world ruled by aliens?
That’s not to say prophecy can’t play an important part in great fantasy fiction, but only when it is treated with ambivalence; as something to be fought for or against. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is told by the witches that he will be king. But is it the hearing of the prophecy that awakens the desire in him?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, according to Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, a “fantastic satire on the idea of prophecy.” The high school girl born to fight the forces of Darkness, who dies early on as the prophecy foretells, but is revived by simple first aid resuscitation. “It’s clever because whatever happens you can always twist the facts to say the prophecy was true all along.” The animated film Kung Fu Panda is an even more recent and empowering play on the idea.
Captain Kirk was always encountering worlds where computers had gone mad and gained control and needed to be re-set to liberate a superstitious population. (Top tip: This can be reliably done by getting Mr Spock to ask the Master computer to calculate to the last possible digit the value of Pi.)
But look what happened to Star Trek. Fed, I think, by a post-colonial guilt for the treatment of Native Americans, in the 90s it fell increasingly in thrall to superstition. A Native American first officer in Star Trek Voyager has visions which get taken seriously. And let’s not mention the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine – a tribe ruled by “prophets” who live in a wormhole. For Copson it’s a strange development: “30 years ago we had science fiction that was rational and progressive. But more recently it’s irrational, mystical aliens with ancient wisdom.”
Perhaps the most annoying “prophecy” of recent fantasy fiction has been Sam Raimi’s original prequel The Great and Powerful Oz. It starts promisingly – Oz is a carnival huckster on the run, but once he arrives in the magical land it turns out he is fulfilling a prophecy about a saviour from the air. It’s especially infuriating because Frank L Baum’s many Oz books are delightfully unreliant on lazy storytelling. A salesman in true life, his all-American fantasy is rooted in reality. Unlike Tolkein’s universe, Oz is a land of working farms and market towns. Everyone has a job – the scarecrow, the tin man, even witches are off selling spells. The Wizard is a fraud. And Dorothy Gale is an ordinary girl with no special powers, just her own courage. In contrast to the catfighting women of the new Disney film, his books actually turn into a feminist utopia, ruled over by Ozma.
In fact lazy prophecy based story telling seems quite a modern invention. The great myths of world cultures are full of prophecies and curses made by capricious gods, but how heroes react to them is what makes for compelling story, character and tragedy. Great heroes like Hector of Troy, sometimes find themselves on the losing side.
My favourite prophecy-defying hero is Karna from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata; often compared to the Iliad. (These cartoons are from the Amar Chitra Katha comic book version.) He is the greatest and noblest warrior, but is cursed and rejected because he is illegitimate and was raised in a low caste. Karna fights on the losing side in the battle of Kurekshetra. Lord Krishna exploits his generosity, getting the god Indra to ask Karna to give away the divine armour that protects him. Karna does so knowing it will doom him. The story haunts me still because it’s about a great soul defying fate, prophecy and still choosing to do the right thing. In an India still cursed by caste discrimination Karna is widely regarded as a great role model. Perhaps modern science and fantasy fiction could do with taking more inspiration from the past.
The Reunion programme for Radio 4, produced by Peter Curran, recently brought together some of the original cast and crew of the first episode of Doctor Who. The first Dr Who team was notable for its diversity — Waris Hussein was the first British Asian director at the BBC — and the late Verity Lambert its first female drama producer. But it always seemed strange to me that the women in the early episodes could sometimes look and seem very dated — almost 50s in the hairdos and the screaming, considering it was late 1963. When I commented on this on a recent Dr Who DVD extra Being a Girl, the Women of Dr Who, it got a sneery review only in Dr Who Magazine.
But I felt wholly vindicated when, Dr Who’s granddaughter Susan, (Carole Ann Ford), revealed how the plan for her character had changed and she had been made “ordinary”:
“I was told I was going to be rather like an Avengers character and have the physicality.. And I could have done it because I was a trained dancer and an acrobat… And also that my wardrobe was going to be extraordinary.. And none of that happened. It all went out of the window. I just became ordinary.”
After all, As Ford pointed out, it wasn’t likely that a character who was part alien herself, as the Doctor’s grandaughter, and who had been travelling through space and time for so long, would still be screaming at things so much. Director Waris Hussein revealed the rigid male TV mindset of the time, claiming the female screamer was “a part of the suspense point”; an essential dramatic fixture, “going all the way back to King Kong.. It is a part of the ritual and unfortunately Carole Ann had to bear that burden.”
All geuninely admired Matt Smith, feeling he had the “oddness” that suggested his Doctor would grow old to be like William Hartnell. But it seems frustrating that the assistants now may get to deliver karate kicks, yet have to be tied to being sexy and in search of teen-style romance & snogs.
Waris Hussein commented with polite regret about the “sexuality that has crept in” with the Doctor’s will he/won’t he romances with assistants ,which he felt had diminished the “mystery and the unavailablity” that had been so central to Dr Who’s original appeal and now seemed to reside only in Sherlock. “Why bring in this element when in fact you needn’t have it there? I raise it because I think it’s a loss.”
I was probably of the last generation to truly grow up with the Western (Quentin Tarantino is another) and I was aided by a brother a few years older.He once spent an entire week on holiday in Italy in the mid 70s, walking around with his eyes screwed up trying to look like Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. But where he loved the spaghetti Western spawned in the 60s, I preferred the old Hollywood westerns of the 50s. Only people who’ve never watched proper Westerns really think they’re all about celebrating macho men brutalizing native Americans. Many are doing the opposite; tackling racism, injustice and lynch mobs, sometimes covertly, but often openly.
For my Archive on Four: Riding Into Town I explore the decades from the 30s to the 70s when Westerns ruled in Britain and why they were such a loved form of escapism. Look carefully at pop culture of the 60s and you’ll notice The Shadows playing Apache and The Beatles dressing up in stetsons and cowboy boots. I talked to fans of all kinds. Christopher Frayling, a world authority on the spaghetti western, outlined the history of the British gentleman in westerns – The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, A Man Called Horse, Shalako and also Savage Guns, a Hammer Film, which he thinks was the first spaghetti western. He explained how the violent nihilism of the European spaghetti Western grew out of the counterculture of the 60s.
I found myself singing the Marilyn Monroe theme tune to River of No Return with Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, who grew up obsessed with the cowboy films and serials, which he watched in the Saturday morning cinema clubs of the 1940s. His favourite, Shane (1953) features a Messianic hero, and inspired Holloway to become a priest. In the original ending to the Jack Schaefer novella, which I got Holloway to read aloud for the programme, Shane is described as a “good man with a good tool”, embodying the modern difficulty we have in watching the Western, especially as we see the ongoing battle for gun control in the US.
I found that it was usually women, like Holloway’s mother, who chose the family’s cinema outings and they chose Westerns. Women often had leading roles in the 40s and early fifties – Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich feature in some of the greatest.
In the documentary you can also hear film historian Stephen McVeigh at Swansea University and me deconstructing the delights of gender and sexuality in some cult Westerns that feature in the list below. He told me his students usually claim to hate the genre, but often change their mind after watching one of his recommendations. He also thinks the Western successfully endures in different forms, such as Star Wars and the cartoon film Rango. In many ways science fiction and fantasy have replaced the Western landscape as the dreamworld where anything is possible.
Some of the most serious Western enthusiasts now are re-enactors too, such as The Lawmen who I met in Bristol. Priding themselves on authenticity, they research and “inhabit” real Western characters such as Annie Oakley and Doc Holliday and love the more recent Westerns such as Tombstone and Unforgiven, which get the details of clothing and equipment right.
Caroline Lawrence, the bestselling children’s author of the Roman Mysteries grew up obsessed with Westerns. I talked to her about the challenge of writing Westerns for children – the first of her PK Pinkerton Western mysteries begins quite uncompromisingly with a scalping. It is strange to think that modern children know more about ancient Egypt or Rome than the Wild West. Of course it’s in our hands to change that. Here’s my personal top ten of subversive or cult Westerns to try out for yourself.
Rancho Notorious (1952) Fritz Lang (best known for Metropolis) creates the Expressionist western. The hero seeks out the man who murdered his fiancée and finds his way to Marlene Dietrich’s strange ranch where she is Queen of a motley brood of outlaws. Hate, murder, revenge are all the more powerful in the artifice of its sets.
Johnny Guitar(1954) Weird wonderful, and very camp. Two powerful women, often dressed in male garb, battle it out over land and love. Joan Crawford’s showdowns with Mercedes McCambridge leaves the men as mere onlookers. Don’t be fooled by the title. The eponymous Johnny knows better than to interfere. Director Nicolas Ray lights it with the dreamlike intensity of Rebel Without A Cause.
The Searchers (1958) – Often rated the greatest Western ever perhaps because it’s far more ambiguous than it seems at first glance. John Wayne’s Ethan is on a quest to find his niece kidnapped by Comanches, but he is no loveable hero. There is darkness at his core and an unsettling racism in his motivation. The moral heart of the film is his companion, the part-Indian Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who pulls Ethan back from the final kill. Susan Faludi’s excellent book about 9/11 “The Terror Dream” takes its title from a line in the original Alan LeMay novel and explains how the Western still powers a delusional American male identity today.
Saddle The Wind (1958)– written by Rod “The Twilight Zone” Serling this tale of rival brothers is a fascinating clash of acting eras and cultures. Robert Taylor is the old, Romantic Hollywood confronted by the Method acting frenzy of his trigger-happy younger brother John Cassavetes. Singer Julie London (a great Western actress) is always mesmerizing.
Flaming Star (1960). Originally written for Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley is the brooding half-Kiowa son enraged by the cruel racism inflicted on his mixed race family. Dolores Del Rio is his mother, in a fine and inspiring female role. This was directed by Don Siegel (future collaborator with Clint Eastwood) who focuses on the inescapable momentum of violence.
The Unforgiven (1961 ) This is like a mirror image of The Searchers and based on a novel by the same writer, Alan LeMay. In this case Audrey Hepburn is the allegedly kidnapped Indian girl the Kiowa want back. While one brother stays loyal (Burt Lancaster) another Audie Murphy (in true life America’s most famous and decorated WWII soldier) turns against her in an act of horrifying racism. Silent age star Lillian Gish is a noble and brave matriarch. A wonderful film.
The Singer Not The Song (1961) British and unintentionally gay, but then what did you expect with Dirk Bogarde as a Mexican bandit wearing his own custom-made black leather trousers, gloves and hat? There is, in theory, a female love interest, but it’s all about Bogarde’s obsession with John Mills’s Catholic priest. The orgasmic end in which they fall into eachother’s arms in a hail of bullets has to be seen to be believed.
The Beguiled: (1971) Don Siegel again with a truly Gothic Western. Clint Eastwood – a wounded Union soldier finds himself the cockerel in the henhouse when he takes refuge in a Southern finishing school for young ladies, but things take a sinister turn. A Stephen King-like macho nightmare in the age of women’s lib, apparently this is one of Eastwood’s favourite films.
Back To the Future III (1990)– A perfect introduction to the Western for children. Full of affection for the genre, with a genuine villain, jokes about the prissy tassled cowboy costumes of the 50s, a strong female (Mary Steenburgen’s schoolteacher) and an early burst of steampunk in Doc’s re-booted time machine.
The Quick and The Dead (1995) Sam Raimi’s film has virtually the same plot as the sombre Unforgiven (1992) and even the same villain – Gene Hackman – but is a lot more fun and self-aware. Sharon Stone is the mysterious stranger who comes to town to take part in a gunfighting contest. Leonardo Di Caprio and a very young Russell Crowe provide the sex appeal. Film historian Stephen McVeigh pointed out that Stone is only ever vulnerable and makes mistakes when dressed as a woman.
Why I Love Westerns – The original post I wrote for the Specator arts blog that was the seed for the R4 documentary.
1976 Paris-Rio First commercial Concorde flight to Brazil Photo: Jean-Claude Deutsch Paris Match
I chose Concorde out of a 100 Great British Innovations for a National Museum project to mark National Science and Engineering Week. You can vote for it here. This is why:
The world’s only commercial supersonic airliner — was an engineering innovation that grew out of a business goal – to halve the translatlantic journey time as an era of longdistance air travel opened up. But it was rooted in our most childlike fantasies – for speed, for time travel – arriving before you left – and it looked like it might be a step towards, one day, routine space travel. I was 8 when it first took off for New York, and looked up at it from my south London playground every day. I continued to look up as an adult till it was grounded for good ten years ago. It had style and streamlined space age beauty – those delta wings, that beautifully sharp dipping nose cone for improved pilot visibility. And Concorde was a product of Anglo French cooperation – what could be more futuristic than that?
My dad found a way to get us on it on a short internal US flight when I was 11 year old and I remember staring at that Mach counter and willing it to reach 1 – the speed of sound. Concorde’s fuel-guzzling need was its fatal flaw. We forgave it for becoming a taxi service to the superrich, who would be blasé about the Mach counter reaching 2.04 – its top speed of 1350 miles per hour. The fact that Concorde never made any money, that it became a commercial dead end only makes its innovation all the greater. The aeronautical industry sees a legacy in the commercial success of the European consortium Airbus. But Concorde’s real legacy I think was its ambition. It was childhood’s dream. And its demise was childhood’s end.
How did I come to make a documentary for Radio 4 called I Dressed Ziggy Stardust? It was pitched and commissioned about 6 months ago, long before anyone thought Bowie might be releasing new material.
This is the story behind the documentary and extra tips I wrote about raising my children the David Bowie way that helped me come up with the idea. I owe special thanks to Shyama Perera who inspired me with her talent (and her dyed hair) and generously shared her story. I guess the programme is for everyone who wants to reclaim our popstars from the establishment of rock critics who have a tendency to leave the teenage, and especially the female fans, out of their grand histories.
The original pitch: Two British Asian girls growing up in 70s London: One scared but fascinated by emaciated, androgynous David Bowie on her TV. The other older and bolder was hanging around outside his house, chatting with him and Angie, having breakfast with his bandmates and sending in ideas for costumes. One day more than 30 years later the two girls met and exchanged stories. Revisiting locations and memories Samira Ahmed (the scared one) takes Shyama Perera (the bold one) on a journey to explore how David Bowie changed their lives and how Shyama may have changed his.
The post I wrote for the Radio 4 blog explains the significance of the two photos above. This is a version of it. And below are two of the key videos referenced in the programme. Note the Muslim bride/Crusader theme of Loving The Alien.
This is a story about heroes and how they change us. As a little girl I grew up in 70s & early 80s south London suburbia terrified and fascinated by David Bowie.
I navigated my way through a decade that often ignored but more often didn’t seem to like “coloured” people very much, with National Front support at its peak. And I fixed on rare and hugely inspirational Asian role models, like the bold and charming TV presenter Shyama Perera.
A year ago, Shyama and I finally met. I confessed my hero worship of her and we found we shared a love of David Bowie. But where I had watched from a suburban distance, through the TV screen and the music charts, Shyama, an inner London girl, a few years older and bolder, revealed how as a teenager she had hung around outside his house chatting with Bowie and his wife Angie, breakfasted with his bandmates, and sent in costume sketches. One day David Bowie ruffled her hair on his doorstep and told her she’d have a surprise at the gig that night. The story of I Dressed Ziggy Stardust was born then and I pitched it to Radio 4.
As well as re-visiting the old locations from Shyama’s Ziggy years, producer Alice Bloch broadened our search for fans and found Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Chandrika Joshi. There aren’t many female Hindu Priests, but, Chandrika a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, growing up in Wales, saw resonances of Lord Krishna and the easy androgynous beauty of Hindu avatars in Marc Bolan and Bowie. Who could have thought Top of the Pops could lead to her challenging the gender expectations of her faith and culture?
Rupa Huq, a colleague at Kingston University, grew up in the Queen of the suburbs – Ealing. She shared fascinating insights into both how Bowie intruded into her own Bengali upbringing; notably in the Muslim bride and Crusader imagery of Loving The Alien And, through her own research as a sociologist, she explained how suburbia was not the dull, conservative space as portrayed in 70s sitcoms, but a radical “edge” where immigrants made their homes and youth formented rebellion. Punk, like Bowie, came from the ‘burbs. To those of us sick of racist experiences, the idea of a white boy, who could fit in without effort, choosing to stand out and court controversy about his sexuality was incredibly liberating.
Suzi Ronson, Bowie’s costume mistress during the Ziggy days, his publicist Cherry Vanilla, who managed the fans, and photographer Hy Money filled in the gaps. Hy had taken her children to Bowie’s south London “Arts Lab” club on Beckenham High Street. It was where Bowie and Bolan jammed with sitar players in suburbia. Being Asian could be cool, after all. He apparently said of it: “I run an arts lab which is my chief occupation. It’s in Beckenham and I think it’s the best in the country. There’s a lot of talent in the green belt”.
Throughout the making of the documentary I carried round the 2 photo postcards shown at the top of this post. One of a teenage David Jones in one of his many failed pop prototype incarnations — more Tommy Steele than Ziggy Stardust; a suburbanite desperate for fame. The other, a famous Mick Rock portrait of David Bowie, jaffa-haired and skinny, holding a photograph of himself in yet another persona. I saw the same suburban hunger for success as the immigrant child forging her own identity.
So while he’s everybody’s hero now, it seemed important to reclaim Bowie from the middle aged male musos who say he never did anything decent after the 1970s, for the fans, including the female fans. It’s good to remember the time when grownups often hated and feared David Bowie, and he seemed to be speaking just to girls like me and Shyama, daring us to love the alien within.
1963 was a remarkable year. Among the glut of cultural and historical anniversaries — Dr Who, the assassination of JFK, Billy Liar and Oh What Lovely War! — we should I reckon be marking 50 years since the invention of sex, as per the Philip Larkin poem:
Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) - Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban And the Beatles’ first LP.
The second verse holds the key word – Shame:
Up to then there’d only been A sort of bargaining, A wrangle for the ring, A shame that started at sixteen And spread to everything.
It’s easy to forget the depth of shame that covered every aspect of young people’s sexual lives till then. Novelist, Fay Weldon recently told me on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour programme how her generation was weighed down by terrifying ignorance and shame of their own bodies and sexuality: “We didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain or understand our bodies. We were so ignorant.”
The Pill and the busting of 50s attitudes seemed hugely liberating. But Weldon, a hugely successful copywriter in the 1960s before she became well known as a feminist and novelist, saw first hand though how quickly corporations ,aided by manipulative advertising, appropriated the language of freedom and “choice” to keep men and women consuming, often to the detriment of their health. She fell out with her advertising bosses when, given the growing scientific evidence about lung disease, she refused to work on cigarette campaigns.
Betty Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique was all about the link between consumer culture and the epidemic of depression among women in America’s affluent society.
The line I always remember from Friedan’s field research is: “Clean sheets twice a week are now possible.” Labour-saving gadgets, such as washer dryers, she saw, could create new anxieties and guilt, like much of the beauty industry. The Pill, rather than a pure a liberation, could also become a false choice that merely made it harder for women to say No, without being labelled frigid.
I suspect Philip Larkin, himself a big user of pornography, would have been rather unbothered by the bitter political row today over internet opt-in controls to limit access to online hardcore porn. But the debate is deadlocked over the idea of “freedom”. The powerful modern instinct for free choice – itself a product of the 60s rebellion against 50s authoritarian culture – has pitted us into a false battle of Mary Whitehouse “censorship” versus joyous Steve Jobs-style” choice”, accessed through a variety of cool devices.
Such campaigners for freedom tend to ignore some questionable marketing practices of brands like Apple and Google and the unintended consequences of assuming children are equipped to make decisions in the same way as adults.
A school sex education teacher recently told me how some very young and vulnerable teenage girls she has counselled believe the new HPV vaccine means they’re “safe” to have unprotected sex with multiple casual partners. They don’t question the idea of having so many partners at such a young age. Or why teenage boys pester them to perform acts they’ve seen in porn.
Back in the 80s the Aids tombstone campaign terrified my generation of teenagers. It didn’t stop us having sex. But it probably encouraged us to think a lot more about it before we did. And to demand barrier protection with every new partner.
The word “ignorance” featured in that famous government campaign – Don’t Die of Ignorance. Now under the banner of choice and free will, we kid ourselves that we are no longer ignorant, nor ashamed (though sadly growing religious minorities continue to raise their children in traditional ignorance). But I wonder how else we should describe our general refusal to question the sexting culture in which so many of our young women and men are growing up under such pressures to perform?
We used to dismiss the Cassandras who warned about children being targeted by junkfood brands, until Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me exposed the connection between marketing and illhealth. Why else is the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (representing just about every UK doctor) battling against a very powerful foodmanufacturing lobby, for a ban on all junk food advertising? Sex, like food, should be a joyous part of life. The battle to liberate it from the false mystique of consumer choice may be the one we need to write books about and celebrate 50 years from now.
A version of this piece first appeared in The Big IssueMagazine in March. Packed with features, it’s journalism worth paying for and is available from street vendors across the UK.