Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Gawping at History

Last week I was in central London having lunch with a mate of mine and on the way back decided to go for a quick dip into the British Museum.  It's things like that which make living in a capital city awesome.  Got 45 minutes to kill?  Just go and casually see preserved human remains from 3,000 years ago, staggeringly intricate Etruscan metal work, delicate (and fairly pervy) Greek pottery and a whole host of other things besides which are a tremendous reminder of the invention, sophistication, brutality and nuance of humanity throughout the ages.

There's something about the ancient history sections of museums that I find incredibly moving and I can't quite put my finger on it.  Probably the most obvious aspect is that whenever I see some jewellery or stonemasonry from the ancient world it blows my mind that it was made by another human being, just like me.  Whenever I watch movies I often realise that I can't comprehend that it is an actor portraying a part, that I am actually seeing into the life of John McClane or Erin Brokovich or Scott Pilgrim.  Now I know that part of that is down to the smoke and mirrors devilry that is acting, but I also get a similar feeling whenever I see ancient artifacts.  At the same time as feeling awe at the age of the object and the ingenuity of the human being that created it, I'm also aware that there's a part of me that strongly suspects it was actually fabricated by the museum.  I can't shake off the erroneous feeling that there is a conspiracy of academics who fake artifacts to look impressive and back up the narrative that Europe was once ruled by the Romans or that Egyptians loved to bury there dead and then write all over the coffin. Obviously, that is what happened, but it seems awfuly convenient that it's also such a good story.

The other thing abut ancient history that makes shivers run down my spine is how other-worldly it all seems.  The nature of history that old is that it is always going to be mixed up with myth, legend and hearsay, but whenever I read about the history of Lydia, Carthage or Mesopotamia, it's always a shock to me to find that these places appear on exactly the same map that you'd find in a British Airways flight magazine.  I don't know if that's the effect of Tolkein and comic books, but it seems impossible for me to get my head around the fact that Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, Rameses and Octavius and all the other nameless Babylonians, Persians, Hittites and Phrygians actually existed and walked the same dusty earth that I have when I've wandered around the Mediterranean in my flip-flops.  I don't think it's purely a matter of time and place.  Obviously I feel a connection to event of the 19th and 20th century.  I can wrap my head around the playwrights, natural philosophers, industrialists, chimney-sweeps, farmers, aesthetes and aristocrats of the post-Renaissance age.  At a push I'm able to empathise with the medieval world without my brain creaking too much and even the violent, testosterone-pumped world of the Anglo-Saxons isn't too much effort to envisage for someone who has shared a changing room with private school boys rugby teams.  But any further back and my imaginations refuses to believe the images it creates (ably aided by textbooks and museum displays.)

I don't think it's solely to do with the fact that there is a reassurance of learning history about an age when the date requires four figures or the delineations of nations on the map seem vaguely familiar.  After all, if I was lucky enough to pop back in time 2,000-2,5000 years (and find sufficient excuses to mask the overtly curly hair and slightly too large nose) I would find libraries, pubs, stadia, market places, complex music, mathematics and food, as well as people capable of thinking about combustion engines and optics.  People who share precisely the same genetic code as every human alive today, but living a life that it's hard to think of as anything but mythical.

If I did enough digging - probably on a programme called 'Who Do You Really Really Really Really Really Really Think You Are' - I'd expect I wouldn't find the world full of sage old ancients, talking in constantly epic sentences and acting like extras in Game of Thrones. I expect it wouldn't take long to find moaning shopkeepers, world-weary civil servants, arrogant sportsmen and neurotic actors.  I imagine, like any travel in either time or space, I'd find that these strange distant destinations would be eerily similar to the hear and now.

The thing that really grasps me about the ancient world, I think, is that it had a newness about it, an unexplored quality.  Don't mistake this for innocence.  People still went to war and tortured each other, still conninved and cheated.  Hey, the greatest intellectuals of the ancient world loved to fuck young boys and the greatest mathematicians enjoyed all the courtesans they could afford (although I like to think that even geeky, desert-dwelling geeks had the good grace to be as awkward around them as their 21st century descendants would be.)  But whilst there wasn't an innocence about early civilisation - I don't think there has EVER been an innocence about humanity - there was the excitement of the new.  It could be that I'm projecting that on to historical people that I know precious little about, but just as when I listen to Elvis or Buddy Holly and can hear the lightning-strike excitement of these men discovering for the first time what you can do with three chords and a decent rhythm section, so the displays of the British Museum show humanity's invention and excitement at what you can do with bronze, pottery, stone, iron, paper, ink, glass, wood, silicon and everything else the earth has to offer up to us to make our species work.  Some people think that museums are boring because all they show is old things and ways of living that we've outgrown and no longer need, but I disagree.  To me museums vibrate with a newness and an invention that, even in our current age, we struggle to match. That's why I find them such a constantly enriching, replenishing and enlightening place to visit.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

No Sex (Outside of a Soundproofed Box) Please, We're British!

Today Channel Four announced their groundbreaking new show, Sex Box, in which two grown adults copulate inside a sealed box, whilst celebrities and critics who wouldn't even make the subs bench for Newsnight Review commentate on proceedings.  I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that this is officially the moment when humankind has made too much television.  The alleged motivation about making this program is to coldly, cooly and clinically analyse the sexual act in order to demystify it and rescue it from the evil clutches of pornography.  But I think that description is the result of Channel Four execs deciding to lie to us even more than when they tried to persuade us that Hollyoaks Later was a gritty drama.

From an obviously scientific point of view, the sex on display is going to tell us absolutely zero about the sexual habits of modern Britain, as it will be observed by a studio audience. Now I like to count myself as quite the exhibitionist, but I have never had sex in front of a paying audience.  Also, what are the audience meant to be doing when the act is going on? Are they meant to sit there quietly twiddling their thumbs?  Will they each be given a mug and piece of wallpapered plastering to listen through, so they can enjoy the grunts and groans of participants?  Or will there be some studio lacky with cue cards - an audience reaction fluffer -   to direct their reactions?  One can imagine a room full of lollygagging, gawking morons happily applauding, cheering, whooping and groaning at the sexual act, directed by a smug studio lizard, conducting their responses like a licentious Herbert von Karajan.  Or maybe I'm wrong, maybe the audience will be like staid, impartial observers at an 18th century operating theatre, stroking their beards and making sage comments to each other.  Either way, it's a strange enough personality type who decides to sit in the audience of game shows, talk shows and 'social experiments'.  Hell, I have a hard enough time watching the people who willingly let themselves into the Top Gear compound without wanting to unleash automotive Armageddon whenever I hit the motorways, so I can only imagine the despairing hatred I'll have for the morons who think its an enriching night out to watch some other humans make the beast with two backs, egged on by all the beasts with two faces who produce TV shows.  

Meanwhile on the other side of the sealed, soundproofed wall, what on earth is the experience going to be like for the couple doing the pelvis fandango?  In my experience there are a myriad of different types of sex, and I'm not talking about positions.  There's "We-both-know-we're-going-to-do-it birthday/anniversarry sex", "Nothings-on-telly-so-we-might-as-well sex", "Just-got-out-the-shower-and-can't-help-ourselves sex", "Quick-before-you're-parents-get-home sex" and the ever popular "Oh-was-that-it? sex."  At least if the man loses his erection he will be justified in using the "this doesn't usually happen to me" excuse.  "Don't worry darling," his lover can reply "we don't normally have sex preceded by a warm-up man and shot from fifteen different angles." 

Once the dreadful/shameful/joyous/revelatory/perfunctory/shocking (delete as applicable) act has been committed, what then?  Obviously that's when Mariella and her panel of experts are going to quiz the sexer and the sexee, as though they were presenting an evening edited highlights show on YouPorn.  Can we not just go the whole hog and have Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher dissecting the play-by-play of the carnal act in super-slow motion and high definition, enthusiastically highlighting the couple's technical shortcomings and tactical naivete.  As Premiership footballers they're as likely as anyone else to be experts on having sex in front of a watching audience.  I'd like to hope that, after their exertions, the sextestants will be allowed to enjoy a relaxing post-coital cigarette.  Except that would be far too offensive and damaging to broadcast.  Instead, I imagine the woman will relish giving a blow-by-(not-actually-willing-to)-blow account whilst her hubby drools onto her shoulder.      

It's the disingenuous idiocy of the programming that frustrates me.  Just as the mass human sacrifice that is Big Brother was allowed onto our TV screens under the illusion of social experiment, so this pointless nonsense is going to be broadcast as some sort of public service.  The bare fact is that this show isn't reclaiming sex from pornography any more than stage fighting reclaims violence from domestic abusers.  It's taking a particular action and putting it in a completely different context.  I suppose it is disinfecting and domesticating sex from the world of pornography, but then it is missing a whole bunch of different points.  Is there too much pornography available? Almost certainly.  Is it worryingly easy to access? Yes again.  Is it altering the expectations of sex that children (and adults) have? Absolutely. And is letting three couples pork each other (or Quorn, if they're vegetarians) silly live at ten pm, followed by a chat on the comfy sofas of TV-land going to help? Not in any way.

We need to have conversations with our kids, our friends, our sexual partners about what we should and shouldn't expect from sex and how we should consume it.  This program is simultaneously a lobotomised and sanitised approach to sex.  I suppose it is too much of me to expect the actual act to be broadcast, but there is something peculiarly British about televising two people shagging, but only behind a screen, in a soundproof booth.  It's going to take a very restrained sound engineer not to play the Benny Hill theme tune over the top of the whole charade.

Now we've let this onto our televisions, we have to ask what's going to come next?  I don't want to sound like a Daily Mail prude, but some of the fun of sex is working out what does and doesn't work for you and your lover together. I imagine in the days before steamy HBO sex scenes people just had to get out their slide-rules and protractors and fastidiously apply them their stolen copy of Razzle in order to work out what the correct approach was in the bedroom.  Now we have movies, TV shows and even ex-child popstars suggesting ways to get our rocks off.  What no-one wants to hear after a particularly successful session of acrobatic fluid-transfer is the exchange: "Wow, where did you learn to do THAT?", "Oh, on a roundtable discussion group with Judy Finnegan."  I'm all for sex education when it comes to contraception and good health, all for knowing the biological and anatomic mechanics, but when it actually comes to the practice of sex, I think trial and error with consenting adults is still the best way to go, not passively watching it on the gogglebox.

We do need to talk about this more, but not on bullshit Channel Four programs.  What else is the leading purveyor of pseudo-psychology programs going to parade in a thinly-veiled excuse to get ratings?  Murder Cage with Davina McCall: three couples enter a sealed room, have an argument and one member bludgeons the other to death with a blunt instrument so we can really get to grips with the dynamics of domestic abuse.  Drug Overdose: Smacktalk, Romanian Premier League Bear-Bating, Paedophilia: Live.  The gate is now open and I will never be shocked again at what dystopian horseshit makes it on to our TV screens, masquerading as mature broadcasting.  Turn on, tune in and welcome to the Colosseum. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Viva La Paddington

Sources from Hollywood have announced that Colin Firth is to play the iconic part of Paddington Bear in a new biographical movie. 

Although he found fame as the star of a series of children's books, Paddington's real story began in the 1930s when he came to Britain as a political dissident. The young bear was cast out from Peruvian political life for his controvertial polemics against the left-wing regime in power.  The forward-thinking Paddington favoured a more capitalist, marmalade-based system, and it was this radical view, as well as his rumoured paramilitary action, that led to him being exiled from his homeland.  Any child brought up in the 1960s will fondly remember Paddington in his signature duffel coat, carrying a battered travel case, but that was the image the bear decided to give himself when he finally ended his career in politics.  On his arrival to these shores - not at the eponymous train station, but under cover of darkness at Brize Norton air base - Paddington, or Paducho to give him his original name, was dressed in rebel military fatigues, a shaggy beard and a fiercly ironed beret.  It is this bear that Firth hopes to get to the bottom of.

"I don't really have much time for Paddington's later work, essentially selling out to the mass British market in order to ensure his comfort in later year.  It is the revolutionary capitalist, who fought against prevailing tide of Marxist alpacas that dictated much of Peruvian thought, that I really want to sink my teeth into." said Firth in a E!Weekly interview.

There are already rumours of dissatisfaction from the Bear estate as to the content of this biopic.  Whilst the studio insist that it will paint him in a good light, there are suggestions that some scenes might depict the no-hold barred torture chamber Paddington is alleged to have run, with his band of outlaws, the Condimentatos.  Leaked documents from the Peruvian archives have painted a hideous picture of Paddington force-feeding a variety of preserves to captured opponents until they recanted their Marxism and followed his path.  Chillingly, some of these papers even have scraps of gooseberry jam spattered on them.  Paddington has always fiercely denied these accusations, insisting that he was always focused on stimulating change via whimsical japes and enigmatic wrinkles of his nose, rather than jelly-boarding that he is accused of.

The seven hour epic is due to start filming next month, with studio bosses also confirming Benicio del Torro as Paddington's enigmatic and inspirational Aunt Lucy and Meryl Streep as all four members of the Brown family who helped Paddington acclimatise to his new life in Britain.  The movie is already being touted as a potential Oscar botherer in 2015, alongside documentary Noddy: Tantrums and Tiaras and the feline Bond adaptation Bagpussy. 

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Chain Letter Disciples No.1

With just under four weeks to go until the start of the Edinburgh Fringe (cue involuntary anxiety spasm) and the first of my Chain Letter shows (spasm...hold it together Van der Velde) each preview I do is bringing forth new and excellent stories from audience members who've been inspired by the show and I thought I'd share a few of them with you as they're so good.

For those who haven't had their ears chewed off with my enthusiasm about this project, here's a quick rundown. Over the past few months I've been trying to save the humble handwritten chain letter in the face of the onslaught of digital communication.  I appreciate that writing a blog post about the project is possibly slightly self-defeating, but I'm not going to write a pamphlet and nail it to every town hall door in the country, Martin Luther-style.  My way of saving the handwritten letter has been to turn myself into a human chain letter and post myself to some of my long lost friends, to see if I could encourage them to pass me on to their long lost friends in turn and keep the joy of receiving letters alive. 

As I said, audience's have really connected with the idea and told me some ace things.  Here are a few of them:

1. Last night I met Preshan, an Indian chap who told me about his relationship with letters when he was a kid.  As a kid he was mesmerised by the procession of people walking down his street every day to pop letters into the fabulous bright red post box at the end of it.  It was a wonder that from this simple box you could reach any person in the whole of India. For months he saw his mother writing letters to her father, but his Dad never doing likewise to his own father.  Confused and frustrated by this, he resolved to start writing to his paternal grandfather, who he had never met.  Over the next few months he concientously handwrote letters to his grandad and every time was disappointed not to receive a reply.  This did not deter him and so he kept writing.  After a year of this he felt distraught at being ignored by his grandfather and so tearfully asked his Dad why his letters were going unanswered.  He was told very simply why his grandad did not reply: he was blind.  Preshan failed to mention if he then went to work with a hammer and nail to make homemade Braille letters.

2. Jack, a lad I met at a preview last week in Wivenhoe, told me of a great idea he's been inspired to do from the show.  He's an artist and has decided to send 10 disposable cameras out to his own childhood home and those of 9 of his family/friends and ask the new owners to take pictures so they can see what's changed.  I thought it was a beautiful thought, which appealled perfectly to my own love of navel-gazing nostalgia.

3. Last night I also met Aria, who told me about her pen pal in Singapore who she wrote to when she was a child, until one day the letters simply stopped.  She kept sending hers for a few months but got no reply, assuming that her pen pal had simply forgotten about her.  Fast forward 15 years later and she had moved from America to Perth in Australia.  Being considerably closer to Singapore, she thought she'd chance her arm with another letter to her childhood friend. This time she did get a reply, but from Perth.  Her friend's family had moved there all those years ago and not told her, nor kept her American address.  Somehow, by hook or by crook, this new letter and found it's way from the old address in Singapore to the new one in Perth and in adulthood the two pen pals were reunited.

4.  This is my favourite preview story so far, told to me by Julian.  As a teenager, trying to win the affections of a girl he had a crush on, he thought he'd try something a bit romantic and write her a postcard and send it across town.  On his journey into college however, the postcard fell out of his pocket on the tube, without a stamp.  Disappointed to have misplacedthe postcard, Julian lost his nerve and didn't write another one, assuming that the fates did not want him and the girl to get together, so he was pleasantly surprised a few days later when he received a phone call from the girl thanking him for the card and asking him out for a drink.  Unbeknownst to Julian some secret commuter cupid had found the postcard, read its contents, put their own stamp on it and posted it.  You may now swoon communally...

I'm delighted by how many ace stories about the power of handwritten letters that I've been given already from audience members and can't wait to hear more over the next 6 weeks.  If you have any good letter stories, please do get i touch with me.  Now gotta go write to Kevin Bacon, who I'm convinced should be the patron saint of chain letters.