Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Royal Wedding

When I left my home to watch the nuptials at my local cinema, the city was quiet -much like any bank holiday. But I was surprised to see decorators and Big Issue sellers at work as normal. After the event, I stepped outside, hoping to hear local church bells ringing;  I strained to hear a little chime distantly. Most shops were closed, but while the majority took the advantage of another bank holiday’s rest, few displayed anything in their windows about the event. One restaurant said it was closing due to ‘the wedding’ – the monarchical aspect was dropped. Others had triangular flags on strings but avoided the national tricolours. From one window dangled a Chelsea football flag – not even a local team – for the next day’s match. 

I am among those who are proud of our monarchy and heritage. But I did note that the service used words which made me shudder – about the very negative church view of why we have marriage – to stop fornication and to have children. I noted with pleasure the lack of ‘obey’ in Kate (now Duchess)’s vows. The Guardian points out that the music was very imperial. I am proud, although most of the unfamilar pieces didn’t stick out, especially not the new piece composed by John Rutter. The choir descants spoiled favourite hymns as usual. And there was a heavy military feel to the day, which I struggled with as a pacifist.

I am bored by the silly media commentary and bitch comments about the attire of people I often have no interest in.

What does interest me is a parallel between the new princess (why does she have to have her husband’s first name?) and the one of the women I most admire in History. Although also not royal or aristocratic, Anne Boleyn did keep her first name when she became queen. Her wedding to Henry VIII was a private and secret affair – its date is not known – but her coronation is easier to compare to yesterday’s wedding. Anne Boleyn is a much maligned woman, whose enemies’ vilification programme has been successful for 400 years. She was not the grasping bitch whose reign was cut short by beheading; she was the real star of the Reformation who set up the kingdom ready for the successes that her daughter Elizabeth reaped. She was a woman who also knew that her costumes of public occasions spoke symbolically as statements, and used them well. Allegedly also dark (although Joanna Denny disagrees) and slim, Anne had to wait a similar time to Kate (possibly longer) before finally marrying into royalty. In contrast to choosing an established military uniform, Henry’s bridegroom outfits would have been as interesting to see as his wives’. I believe that Jonathan Rhys Myers commented on playing Henry in the Tudors TV series that this was the best dressed male in history. The costume designers for the show got a unique opportunity to make such splendid clothes for a male.

 I wonder what the metropolitan police would have done to control the crowds who allegedly booed Anne and threw things on her two mile ride through the capital.

Which brings me on to the bitter aftertaste of yesterday’s affair. In reading the papers, what’s stuck in my mind was the heavy handed response of police. I chose contrasting papers; the more local and conservative one only briefly mentioned the arrests as a low number, instead quoting the police on the nice atmosphere in Westminster. The self aggrandised left wing one spent much time on the feelings of suppressed republicans who feel their right to an anti royalist view was curtailed by pre-emptive police. On the same page that OK magazine had its huge Royal Wedding special advert, this paper reported on Bristol anti Tesco protests being escalated by riot police – who then got what they dressed for. Also this month, I read of another recent time when British police had stepped in aggressively citing ‘breach of the peace’ before any had been caused. Rightly, complaints are being made at all these incidents. It’s the same month that I watched Stuart: A Life Backwards about two real men that met over protesting that managers of a shelter where drugs were dealt were arrested in a raid and then imprisoned.

Whilst some are angry at the public expenses of yesterday’s ceremony, the real bill comes from security. We didn’t  pay for the Abbey or the reception or the dress; the uniting families met those costs. What the recession and cut weary nation did pay for was a multi-million police bill, involving stop and search on all those near the abbey as well as heavy handedness at republican parties. Security now spoils any large event, which are often full of peace, fun and neighbourliness to strangers. We’ve become obsessed with searching people and it really should not be tolerated. Yes, if we’re innocent we mind particularly. And this same police force, who we regularly pay our taxes towards, is rough handling other peaceful demonstrations against important matters and undermining our right to be a free country.

Vintage wartime posters are available to buy, and felt all the more appropriate with their crowned slogans in the light of our internationally followed royal wedding. The one that is most appropriate is ‘Your freedom is in peril – fight with all your might’. That doesn’t mean taking up arms – but it does mean the right to publish, speak publicly and privately,  and hold up placards should never be curtailed.

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Strange Moon Rises

The title partly comes from a distortion of the debut album by The Smoke Fairies, Sussex born makers of ethereal folky music. I recalled the phrase when reading The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s third memoir. Recounting the period in the 1960s where she lodged with Oxford academics Jenifer and Hebert Hart, Karen often had reason to print the words ‘Moon Rises.’ Her charge, Jacob, greeted her with the phrase each morning. He read the newspapers over breakfast and quoted the day’s headlines and mooncycles to her.

This is the second time I have read The Spiral Staircase, and both times I have felt an affinity with the writer and presenter who left a nunnery after a breakdown to ‘begin the world’ as her second memoir was almost titled. Her next essay of 2004 is a mature overview over sixty years, from novice to scholar, teacher, broadcaster and is now well known for her books on mainly the monotheistic religions. I take courage from the time it took for Karen to find her place in the world, for opportunities and careers to abort before embracing her path on a solitary spiral stair, a secular sacred assent that has recently culminated in her worthy compassion charter.

Perhaps the episodes with the Hart family stand out most for me. It was here that Karen was prepared to deal with and accept her own epilepsy, though sadly looking after Jenifer’s son Jacob did not precipitate a diagnosis for her or keep her away from useless psychiatrists who refused to take her frightful visions and black outs seriously.

Although I have a reaction to the faith she lost, denigrated and kind of returned to, my strongest response is to that era where Karen struggled with her health and believed herself to be a few steps from a mental hospital’s inpatients. Since leaving her religious order, Karen seemed to have been surrounded by so called rationalists. I say ‘so called’ as a dogged belief in only what science approves of and a derisory ridicule of anything beyond that is not rational to me. It is the reverse. And many people have entered mental institutions for disagreeing.

Hasn’t proclaiming someone mad long been the easiest way to silence and undermine? Whether you’re Christine from Changeling, questioning the authorities, or the spurned lover of Mussolini, it’s just another set of cells with actually worse treatments and control than a prison. It sweeps away dissenters and challengers; people who might embarrass – not through their behaviour but often by exposing other’s shortcomings. Last week, I posted on the television series Afterlife. The fictional medium Alison Mundy spent much of her past in mental institutions because of her gift. In the first series, she bravely returns to help a young man who claims he has an alter ego that harms him and others. What’s frightening about re-entering that hospital is not the other inmates but the staff. Any dissent and you are hauled off and then given treatments. The staff are inhumane, talking in that patronising unreal way. All of this is designed to destroy souls that the system often doesn’t believe in.

In Afterlife, Alison says that the drugs actually feed the spirits and do not make anything go away. Karen’s experience of drugs were that they were also ineffectual.

I am interested in Karen’s relief at being diagnosed with epilepsy and her willingness to take drugs for it. As mentioned, she was mostly around people who believe in science and the mind. She had rejected religion, believing Christianity to be academically insupportable. She has not returned to experiential faith and her ecstasy now is from art and study – her definition of ecstasy not being one of transported rapture but an etymological leaving oneself behind. She sometimes felt that her ability to feel had been lost and her ability to think originally was submerged for some years, first under her nun training and then in academia. All this perhaps explains why a medical response was welcomed rather than the ideas that Alison of Afterlife or anything that Louise L Hay or a famous medium might tell you.

For them, spirituality and health are connected. Karen never speaks of a higher self, a spirit world or a personal God, but for other writers these are essential philosophies. Understanding symptoms of epilepsy for them would not be about drugs to control electric jumps in the brain. What is really going on is something that can’t be measured, just as our full humanity cannot be.

I am loathe to even mention the idea of fits and demons being linked. Liberal Christians read Jesus’ exorcisms as in fact dealing with epilepsy. Looking at it that way round, it’s a relief: it takes away the terror of potential possession, relegating the fits and any visions to things that can be cured by a dosage, and which has much less fear and stigma attached (there should be none). Perhaps I will no more than hint of the reverse interpretation except to say that such diagnoses can be harmful emotionally as much as the often poorly handled attempts to release sufferers.

But could spirituality and mental and physical health be more entwined than many practitioners are willing to believe? As The Verve sang, the drugs don’t work.They are a wicked form of control, as much as padded cells and restraints. As Alison in Afterlife points out, some previous mental health candidates would have been seen as witches and burned. We are really not very good at fair treatment and empathy with those that are different, including those who manifest behaviours or powers that perhaps frighten us.

I was relieved to think that Mother Julian’s devil visitations might be explained in the same way of Karen’s ghastly visions. Karen’s doctor said she has temporal lobe epilepsy which affects the sight and smell areas of the brain, which explains her eyeless old man and the malodorous sulphur. Something similar was experienced by Julian, though those in the room with her did not. When I first read of Julian’s fiends, it frightened me that a devout woman should be allowed such visions – why didn’t God step in and rescue one of his own from this attack? Two years ago, I decided her visions were because she had explicitly asked for it, and influenced by cosmic ordering, believed God had given her simply what she had chosen. Now I am less comfortable with that.

I have said this before but it is a point worth repeating: we believe what is palatable. There are some things I don’t want to be true – whether it be the existence of a scary cryptological specimen or demonic interventions. And I will work to discredit them. However, there are some things I am happy to embrace and draw comfort from. Evangelical Christians say that those who deny God do so because if he and the miraculous side of the Bible are true, it calls them to face up to things they don’t want to that requires action. Perhaps that principle is true of rationalism in general – that if something is not denouncable, choices are called for and uncomfortable transitions must be made. I often wonder why the existence of a spiritual realm, especially God, is so unfavourable to many people and why the miraculous elements of the Bible are so hard to absorb. I have a very liberal, non mainstream faith but my attitude to all of the science worshippers’ objections has always been: why not? God, flood, miracles… resurrection… what an unimaginative, narrow world where such wondrous aberrations cannot take place.

You will soon gather that I too have a spiralling mind, a theme and title which have significance in my creative writing. So we circle round the staircase to again find our strange moon, and the family that gave this piece its title. I really warm to Jacob Hart and would like to know more of him. I think he sounds witty and interesting. I have been intrigued and impressed by what I have found out about his parents and how their unconventional lodgings were an oddly nurturing time for Karen. I love how Jenifer rescued Karen from the mental hospital and had stolen second hand sweets to comfort her with. I am shocked when Jacob’s appearance and behaviours are called hereditary – by looking at his father. I don’t claim to know what epilepsy and other illnesses are – even if ‘illness’ is the right word. But I question hereditary theories and, and especially the use of drugs and other treatments from inside hospitals. Karen lists some shocking ways of dealing with epilepsy from the past, but we have not moved on very far, especially not in the general world of mental health; and drugs are tied into pharmaceutical company profits – there is more to their prescription (both senses) than supposed greater success of control. Drugs do not even pretend to cure epilepsy. I am sure that other kinds of healers have a far more healthy and holistic way of assisting. One healer wrote of a client who wouldn’t release his epilepsy because it made him feel special. I can understand why that man hung onto it; like why some people on wheelchairs at a Charismatic healing rally say – it’s OK: I can live like this. I don’t need curing. I am whole as I am. And like Alison Mundy – it is part of me and I’d be lost without it.

This is a staircase I like to tread on and may well return to. For now, I shall watch out for moons and think of not only excellent gigs but of a wonderfully eccentric, radical household and celebrate those whose ideas give them ideas to change the world; and of misunderstood people with gifts and traits that should be celebrated and explored, not quashed and scolded, and heaven help us all: treated.

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Put an end to our culture of drunkenness

I was going to make today’s entry about Passenger’s Charters on trains – what companies really ought to pledge to passengers, and a code of conduct for passengers to each other. I wrote a humorous column on the latter 10 years ago, but my gripes remain and have multiplied, especially since portable music and computer games have come back into fashion. I wrote on Hubpages about noise pollution and the needless sounds of electronic equipment; the prevalence of screens; and high decibels in both public and private places. Public transport remains an area where we are subjected to the tastes and activities of others, just as we are in the home, especially in more pleasant weather when windows are opened.

In both noise pollution and anti social behaviour, there seems a claiming of territory where just a few make a noise that is thrust upon the rest of us. It’s only one window in every block of flats, one tish, tish beat from headphones in each train carriage. Now those noises are in the street and our libraries. One of the latter ran a campaign called ‘anything but shh’ but some people enjoy the quiet of a library to read and work. Any city centre library I know renders that impossible, and now loud voices, mobile phones and audio visual from the net are rarely curtailed at all.

However, what has really brought me to sit down and write is drunkenness. I have witnessed football fans spoil journeys from 6am til late at night, again because of being addicted to those little ring pulls on cans they can’t stop downing. However, it is not just football that makes journeys rowdy and unpleasant. Travelling at a reasonable hour on a branch line into a city, I was accosted by a train full of young yobs on their way for a night out. I had thought that on a week night the train would be empty and that it was too early for those at the end of a night and too late for anyone going out. Yet this seems prime club time, and those on board where already way past it before they eve boarded. They illegally chain smoked in toilets, (and also avoided fares in there) and were not curtailed at all by staff – eve when there were only a few of them.

What pub or shop or venue would allow such a crowd in without a word?

It seems again that rail staff are more interested in their own interests than that of their passengers. They are more interested in collecting the revenue from unruly passengers – even though many of these are the chief fare dodgers – than making journeys pleasant for decent members of the public, who are increasingly choosing not to travel due to this matter.

There badly needs to be training and support for rail staff. The conductor is mostly alone and I have already commented on the lack of transport police.  Where many businesses will not open with only one member of staff, trains run permanently like this, even on very long trains and late at night or where trouble is known to be likely.

But there is a greater problem: our drinking culture. Scotland had adverts in cinemas to discourage this and it is something that any country with this problem needs to take up. It was designed to undo the idea that being very drunk is something to boast of or encourage. Although there’s been attempts to stop drink being consumed by getting at places that sell alcohol, the real problem is with individuals. They need to stop the idea that such large consumption is acceptable or good.

I don’t want lots of laws and fines and people being questioned and hauled off by police in militia style. After today’s news about the public anger at police kettling protesters and the 30 year anniversary of the Brixton/Bristol riots I do not advocate any change in policing or law that lends itself to more of this. We want to be free to enjoy our activities. Clubbing and sport are not bad in themselves. However, drinking has become a sport in itself, and the dancing or the game sometimes are not what the evening is about. For some, it’s about picking fights; for others it’s simply getting hammered.

A stronger attitude in work places would be a start – that a serious hangover is a disciplinary offence and that it is not something to share without shame. That, as the Scottish adverts said, we let people say no to another alcoholic drink; and that soft and hot drinks are never sneered on. Bars keeping hot drink machines on later helps – I note they are often switched off early in the evening and staff can grumble if customers ask for a latte. I realise they take longer to make and the machines need cleaning out, but staff are able to accommodate coffee making at other busy times – why not late at night? Aren’t cocktails time consuming to make?

Places of education could also assist; instead of assuming that drunken students are inevitable, take the attitude that this is not the advertisement you wish to make for your establishment. Is this how you want your company to be seen?

Football clubs want to attract people and be synonymous with their city, but poorly behaving fans mark against the city and the club. The same is true generally of bad behaviour. My recent trips make certain towns yob cities in my mind now, regardless of how others might behave and all the attractions they have. Football and other sports clubs should also work to discourage their supporters from spoiling it for all those majority of well behaved people who also enjoy spectating.

The argument that drink makes a venue money untrue as alcohol is often cheap and not much more than a soft or hot drink. Whereas venues need to make enough to keep in business, it is wrong to do so by encouraging antisocial behaviour which is also damaging to those undertaking in it.

The Quakers newsletter recently featured an old temperance poster about football and alcohol. One wonders if temperance oughtn’t return. There is nothing wrong in drinking in moderation, but so many people seem to have no idea how to do that. Without being prescriptive and controlling, isn’t it time we helped them?

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Why do we allow football to govern our society?


Would we permit any other facet to so dominate?!

Norwich City stops traffic on match days, but the football ground is part of a busy inner link road. Traffic is snarled up around the ground for 40 minutes – just at the time when shoppers are finishing their afternoon and  people are arriving for an evening out. For local residents, it means they cannot cross the road outside their home as cars from the football carpark are queued up. After having heard the shouts all afternoon carry to their homes, this extra part is one too much. A smaller road is shut for an entire afternoon. 

There are lots of reasons to live in this part of the city. Whether you work at the retail park, commute by train, need to be in walking distance from the centre, or are involved in the night clubs – this southeastern corner is the best place to live. It’s also an area of smart new riverside homes, and conversely includes an area where housing benefit is more readily accepted. All these suffer from the ground. The prolonged closures were announced on a small level at short notice and without any consultation with residents.

It means non football fans are planning their day around something they are not interested in or partaking of, and quite often, having their day spoiled by it. There is a huge resentment about the club in the city, and for all its claims of putting money in the economy – it does not support anything that I am interested in, or plenty of others.

 The football ground is too central in Norwich; most other cities have them further out. It affects the city centre on foot and by car. Why was not the opportunity taken during the development of Riverside retail and leisure park and the new inner relief roads to deal with the traffic problems? Why wasn’t a provision made for the large amounts of people leaving the stadium? Shutting the road is ludicrous as football has more sway over the public than the needs of everyone else.

The leaking sound problem would be helped if the stadium was round and had no gaps at the sides for the cheers to leak out of. I have lived near far larger stadia with less trouble. One factor was having enclosed, circular seating. This would mean that only those who chose and paid to attend would hear the matches and pop concerts held here.

The stadium holds only about a tenth of the population – which doesn’t include all the workers and visitors in a regional capital with a wide catchment area. There as many people who hate football as love it: passion goes both ways. A supporter once rudely called this point of view selfish: yet this attitude is the selfish one. To say that football trumps all is wrong and unfair.

As I write, my city has been closed at short or no notice for a major fan party. Bus stops are out of use; the library was unbearably loud and a reflective act of worship became very hard to focus on. In our recession and cuts, high levels of security are paid for, including wasted little hand held poppers, which then needs extra money to be cleaned up. I have never seen the streets so disgusting. Hooters and uncouth shouts fill the air, audible from some distance, many hours after the gathering. Teens kick cans around the street which police ignore. I’m in my home and had planned to read, and I also need to buy food, but both are affected.

We are also expected to put up with major matches football in our neighbour’s homes, our streets, and pubs that are nothing to do with sport try to attract fans by showing it and spoiling the refuge from football that regular patrons hoped for. Volume goes up on otherwise chilled cafes and pubs as fans descend on them, turning regulars away. 

Worse of all is the antisocial behaviour that football more than other sports brings.

It is so unfair on the quieter fans that the big mouths and unruly spoil the reputation of football for all. Trains are full of thugs littering carriages with beer cans and showing they have no idea how to behave as adults, shouting and wandering about, illegally smoking on trains and getting into fights.

 Why do we accept this? Does any other interest generate such hooliganism?

 There must be a way to accommodate football supporters that both allows them freedom to enjoy their matches in safety without allowing the excesses of oafish antisocial behaviour or making the rest of the city come to a stand still.

 Here are my suggestions for Norwich:

 The Carrow Road area is a weak point of the city’s inner link road and needs to be properly completed. I suggest driving a second bridge near Carrow works/priory (or Trowse bridge) to link with Thorpe Road; or straight across from Morrison’s to where the post office now stands, which will be moving. This means that traffic can move in that corner of the city without going past the football ground and so shutting that road isn’t a problem. I think the current Carrow Rd/Canary way should never have been built and that area should be an open space for fans to spill out on to, preferably with another car park there and not on Lower Clarence Road.

If that sounds too much – the other option is move the ground. It was built far too close to the centre, after the railway and businesses and homes began spreading in that direction and has been lucky to avoid a move. Football clubs are rich and so should be prepared to use their money on balancing their needs with the community around them. the advantage of having it central is purely for the club and fans: that it benefits the city is a much spouted fallacy.

 Local residents should all get match fixtures for the season through their doors and an opportunity to discuss issues with the police/council/ football managers. No residents’ views were sought about the road closure and nor we they given fixture listings. the ones really near ought to be offered season tickets as their lives and homes are rules by football. I think residents may be happy to avoid just before and after the matches in their cars but not to have access to their homes affected for a whole afternoon (or evening) and there should be a resident priority on foot and vehicles at all times.

 The roar of uncouth shouts could be transformed into melodious singing. I was struck by how much nicer Welsh rugby sounds and perhaps footballers could learn from our Cymru cousins about musicality. A challenge for a reality TV musical director!?

 I would like to see a campaign start for anti hooliganism; that excessive drinking and loutishness is no longer considered acceptable and that it’s letting down fellow fans, your team and your city. And the name of the very game itself.

 I was amazed to hear how few transport police there are for smaller cities – often half a dozen per county (Norfolk has 5). By the time they are alerted to an incident, it is too late and they have to ride to the nearest station. So if there’s trouble in Thetford, by the time the train gets to Wymondham, the fight will have reached its worst. The transport police need better resources and to not be so country and city specific: as a passenger and possible victim, I’m not interested in whether Peterborough or Nottingham or Norwich police are coming or whose jurisdiction it is; I’m on a train with trouble and I need someone to stop it. Football time trains – especially late at night – should always have police riding on them and a rail staff presence. It shouldn’t wait for ‘intelligence’ that there’s  problem – there’s a match every week in season and most routes will be affected by fans. They should not be allowed to take on board large amounts of drink and be stopped from consuming it.

Although many hate football, I hope many of us would be willing to show the same spirit of consideration and working together we seek from the football club – who has so far failed in this respect.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I have just seen the play. It is not a good one – not that the performance of it at Nottingham’s Lacemarket Theatre was poor: quite the reverse. I do not claim to have a special understanding of Muriel Spark’s book, but I am sure that the adapter, Jay Presson Allen, does not. The playscript is very offputting, with stipulations about the size his name should be printed on posters. And then follows royalties, permission, and an exacting list of costumes, like the Marcia Blaine School for Girls would send to parents.

Miss Brodie is often described as dangerous, but Allen’s scripts are. Not only has he written an internationally travelling play, regularly staged, but an enduring screen version that starred Maggie Smith in 1968. (I can hear her saying that as Miss Brodie). I understand about adaptation, being a writer of various media myself, and I believe that you can translate most things between media through utilising the possibilities of the new medium. Both scripts do not exploit these possibilities and are very conventional narratively and stylistically. The film is the worst as it is without Sister Helena, who is the point of the story. The film’s time is only linear, but the book is full of time changes. The scripts are without the richness and rhythm of the book and do not attempt to include the inner life of Sandy which is so distinct and important in the novel. Sandy’s showdown with Miss Brodie is neither part of Spark’s work, nor a well written scene. The intended nuances are not clear on a stage without seeing Allen’s intrusive set of stage directions. The play and film need a narrator because that omniscient voice is part of Muriel Spark’s literary device with its own disembodied predestination and oversight. The poetic, Biblical style is all lost in translation and the time period simplified to point of P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N of the source material.

It is not that I necessarily highly esteem the novel. Most ingratiatingly, the Penguin introduction says that not a comma is out of place. Therefore I read the book looking especially at commas. Some of the sentences jar in the way they are punctuated, as does the repetitions of phrases such as ‘being famous for sex’ or ‘running hither and thither in the flames’ and ‘the crème de la crème’. I understand that this feature is part of the Biblical style that is key to emphasising the central theme of Presbyterianism vs Popery. But I also wonder if it’s to mimic Miss Brodie’s teaching style.

I too have seen the parallel between these competing strands of Christianity, just as there are parallels between the Brodie set, the Fascisti, and Girl Guides. Predestination and Calvinism are not brought out enough in the adaptations, and without Sandy’s defecting to the other religious team as well as leaving the Brodie set, the film is as ridiculous as Miss Brodie is made out to be.

Sandy is given script lines which denigrate the career of her lover that are not in the novel. It seems that Allen has made the story about a snotty school girl speaking hard satisfying truths. He inserts comments like ‘you went to bed with an artist but couldn’t cope that you woke up with a man’. Miss Brodie never sleeps with Teddy Lloyd in the book. It shows how badly a Scottish women’s story can be retold by an American male, who desperately latches on to the one minor character the author could possibly re-nationalise as his own – the visitor to Sister Helena.

Allen seems to see Sandy as some avenging angel who ‘puts a stop to Miss Brodie’ and the philandering art teacher, and that we as an audience should agree with her. Again, this misses the nuances out and badly misunderstands the story. It also distorts some facts: Mr Lloyd is one armed, and red haired like Mr Lowther. Mr Lloyd does not harangue Miss Brodie in the ladies’ toilets, as Maggie Smith’s real life husband-to-be does in the film. He is also not guilty of underage relationships with pupils as Sandy is 18 and has left the school when they become lovers for a summer. Mrs Deirdre Lloyd is kept out of Allen’s work, but Teddy’s wife has several lines in the book and becomes Sandy’s friend.

It seems to me that Sandy is also one of the unrequited lovers of Miss Brodie looking for substitutes. Briefly, Sandy decides that Brodie is a lesbian, although I see no evidence for it. However, there is plenty that Sandy is. She fantasises over the policewoman she never meets who helps Jenny after being accosted by a flasher by the Water of Leith. It is Sandy who most loves Miss Brodie. I see her affair with Lloyd as a way of ‘working it off’ [her own crude phrase] on someone else as much as he is, or Miss Brodie does on Mr Lowther. Perhaps Sandy’s feelings are more complicated than romantic love; perhaps it is what she ascribes to Brodie’s affair with the autumnally fallen Hugh: a purer love, above being physical. It might be more what we’d facetiously call a lady crush, but the power of Miss Brodie was enough to send religionless Sandy into a convent, a broken woman.

This act isn’t fully and satisfactorily explained. It says in the book that Sandy extracted Teddy Lloyd’s religion from him ‘like a pith from a husk’, but that does not suffice. Was to to fill that void of not having any religion to rebel against which Sandy speaks of when visiting St Giles’ Kirk? Was it to spite Miss Brodie, who hated Catholicism? Sandy never speaks of a religious calling, a falling in love with God. She does not go out and find other lovers as the rest of the Brodie set did. Sandy hasn’t just renounced the world, she has renounced love because of her broken heart and guilty conscience over Miss Brodie. She has well chosen her nun name to be ‘of the transfiguration’ for she too has tried to metamorphose and has been unable to. Holding the bars of the convent grille is the act of someone desperate and imprisoned, not striding out of the school gates scot free, as in the movie, with Sybil Thorndike’s high and noble mien.

Miss Jean Brodie is a hard woman to ultimately admire; despite her speech about education being leading out, not thrusting in knowledge,  she does not bring out of her class, and she swamps Mary Macgregor’s confidence. To modern teachers, she is especially inappropriate in her dealings with pupils. Whereas we may sometimes sympathise, no character is appealing, especially not Sandy, whose story this really is. And that ultimately weakens the story. It’s a book I want to like more than I do, and when I arrived at the end, there was a sense of dissatisfaction, of being taken on a pretentious ride that didn’t take you anywhere particularly although you feel you may have not taken in all the journey’s details on the way.

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Why Sherlock is immoral and we are for watching it

I have bemoaned that mystery is a genre where death becomes a 3D crossword puzzle; morals and emotions give way to macabre entertainment and dehumanisation. It is never so true than of Holmes.

The police – at least ought – to do their job to keep society safe. Even Gene Hunt , with all his prejudice and brutality, clearly has pride in keeping his city free of ‘scum’ and some of his brutality is down to his anger at what the criminal has done. And perhaps many of us could share that; believing we are sharing a room with a torturer, rapist or murderer – particularly if we have seen the distress of victims or mourners – we may want to exact retribution. Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars is one of the better crime shows because it does show caring and justice in its plots.

In Spooks, the spies believe they are defending their country against terrorism. People in the army believe they too are serving their people and keeping them safe.

However one might feel about the actual behaviours of these roles, the official principle is an admirable one. We could add doctors and lawyers as people meant to give a service to assist and make the world better.

But Sherlock’s work isn’t even like Batman who though wracked with his own vengefulness, still wants to make his city safe, as does V in V  for Vendetta.

Sherlock seems to be a consulting detective just because it gives him kicks. In the BBC most recent series, he actually says he doesn’t care. Although Watson is upset by this, he is not upset enough to walk away from his friend. Sherlock says that caring is a mistake as it doesn’t help save the victims any better. This is rubbish: for some, caring is exactly what drives them. Emotional involvement is a different issue but caring doesn’t mean weakness or inaction. Superman’s enemies often try and trap him in this way, but Superman remains a hero who continues to win, not one who is lesser because he cares – but the reverse.

To get off on the dead is necrophilia, but it seems not only the fictional mystery solvers but all their fans see dead bodies as something to be excited over.

The thoughtlessness for victims and loved ones, the lack of respect for the dead are shocking. We would not like the police to deal with us like this. Yet we accept it in fiction.

The Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock is the most unpleasant one of all. Why is such a popular hero so arrogant? He is well called ‘the freak’ by one of the police, and a sociopath. So why make him a hero? He is even less pleasant than Jonathan Creek and unlike Liesbeth Salander, has no past and demons to wrestle with.

Unlike Stieg Larsson’s stories, the films of Sherlock have no social point, no alert of real life corruption, no moral conundrum. This is not so with the books where this is frequently the case and  Sherlock does also care about justice and people in his own way.

Arthur Conan Doyle used his popular stories to bring up issues, such as the unfairness of divorce law for women; the poor heath and safety of miners; and I read Hound of the Baskervilles as having animal rights potential – an idea I will be exploring. There is frequently a moral conundrum in the plot. The Sherlock of the books is a warmer and more worthy character and this BBC updating has done the iconic detective no favours at all. In not being issue based, it has come furthest  – not closest – to the author’s original intentions.

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I like Trains

So says the band and so do I. I’m not an enthusiast, although I do understand why people are. I’d like to stick up for the geeky image of trainlovers. Unlike some rotten newspapers suggest, having a passion for the horses of the iron road seems a harmless hobby. It’s a quiet, obtrusive interest, and there is a kind of beauty and tranquillity about steam trains.

When I say I like trains, I mainly refer to riding on them.

Which is why when train journeys are so often stressful and unsatisfactory, when things so regularly go wrong, that I am angry.

I constantly rue the 1960s Beeching demolition of lots of useful lines, leaving many rural places stranded.

Since privatisation, we’ve been asked to accept high fares, slow and unreliable services, rude staff – and whatever anti social behaviour selfish fellow passengers feel like, especially in terms of noise and drinking.

It seems that train staff are only concerned that customers have paid; our security, comfort and offering service are not of concern. Whilst happy to confront customers regarding  tickets, staff will not risk conflict over antisocial behaviour.

I’ve seen a mainline train stopped by police for a single person with a “ticket irregularity” but not when a hoard of violent drunks are aboard.

Instead of a welcoming message as one boards, many companies’ first tannoy declares at length that if as advance ticket holders, you are found on board the wrong service, you will have to pay a penalty fare. How that word – penalty – jangles.  They offer cheap fares but think of reasons to make it hard to not pay more.

Why do we have so many rules and conditions to trap people into punishment?

The phrase ‘rail service‘ has become ironic now, with companies pointing to targets to pretend they are doing well. We all know that statistics are misleading and that what really counts is often not quantified and not quantifiable.

If a rail company constantly displays signs about the abuse of employees not being tolerated, it says that they do something to incite abuse. They are quick to take passengers to court over assault, but not to stop it happening between passengers. One line particularly hides when drunken football fans get on – when their presence is most needed – and has led to unrelated passengers being attacked. There is nowhere near enough transport police available for the trains services. Several counties have only 5 staff, in total. Train crews consist of the driver, perhaps trolley/bar staff, and what used to be called a conductor. They are badly trained to deal with problems and I daresay it’s their unions who tell them to keep themselves safe – no matter what happens to those on board.

I would like to see a rethink re alcohol on trains and the end of these rules where trains without drinking allowed on them have to be pre-advertised. Carrier bags of cans to be consumed by already drunk people – I have seen them start at 630 am – should not be allowed on the train.

Trains should return to being the pleasant way of travel they ought to be with greater penalities for train companies who do not deliver what is deserved.

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A review of the Afterlife

Looking at the severe faced man with no hair save a triangle on his chin, a high collared leather jacket and geeky/trendy specs, the guest speaker we’d invited seemed scary. He seemed to fit the horror he wrote – he has worked with notorious horror directors William Friedkin and Ken Russell, and was going to talk about his psychological thriller on mediums – all of which repelled me. So I wasn’t expecting to like him.

But Stephen Volk in person was much warmer than his press photograph. And the clips from his TV show Afterlife not only intrigued me but made me almost cry.

He explained how Afterlife is about belief and scepticism, two disparate people (a psychologist, Robert, and a medium, Alison) who need each other; it’s about unlikely friendships, about healing and facing death. Out of the many film workshops and events I sat through in Bristol, I can still recall this one and it was definitely on my list to follow up.

It took me four years to see the series.

I hesitated because of the DVD cover which suggested horror; I felt the bloody image alienated potential viewers. There seems to be blood for the sake of it. I have never understood the idea that ghosts appear as their body was last seen, and in this story it seems for scare thrills rather than any continuity or necessity. They’ve tried to make this suspenseful and horrific, but this adds no value in my view. Once one disengages from the soundtrack, the creepy stuff is ineffective and therefore wasteful. What does fear give to a story? Is inducing fear in your audience really worthy of being something in itself?

I was surprised to learn that despite making a career writing about ghosts, Stephen Volk’s own view is like his character Robert’s – a so called rational and a cynic. It shows, in that the stories feel penned by an outsider who hasn’t grasped his subject. It was also apparent when he tried to feature a vicar, also depicted stereotypically and clumsily.

The writing of Alison too is a mishmash. She is consulted by people at first who want to get in touch with the dead, but then she becomes a ghost verifier without always being able to help the spirit or the haunted. She recommends urgently abandoning two homes, leaving the haunting problem for the next inhabitant. There were some spirits who seemed malevolent, which raises questions of exorcism – never attempted in the series. If horrible spirits are violently killed horrible people, then some deaths in the series only add to the problem spirits, not erase them.

As a medium, Alison would normally have a spirit guide. Without reference to God either, she faces spirits who are unchecked and she is unguarded with only her own wisdom and fragile strength to deal with a boundless world beyond our control.

That Alison comes to Robert at difficult moments being demanding is poor writing, making stress for the sake of it. As a medium, Alison is sensitive to people and would be able to tell about his illness and his mood.

Series two begins unevenly and seems to move away from the ethos of the show, becoming about spooking rather than curing. The middle episodes are much better, back in the healing and letting go track. The best was about Alison’s family .

The final episode didn’t have the power it did when I first saw it out of context 5 years ago. After letting Alison’s supernatural stance have the last word each week, suddenly it’s Robert the psychologist’s turn to save the day and the suggestion is that Alison’s gift really has been a mental illness. Left alone in both senses by the spirits, Alison does not know what to do without her mediumship, and by the end looses the only friend we know of. There are final scenes we didn’t need – the one of Robert and Josh should have closed the story. The icy nurse was an unnecessary addition, a last attempt at fright and fulfilling some brief to satisfy the genre. The union of father and son felt quite clichéd and gooey when til then, Afterlife had been original and in the case of Lesley Sharp especially, brilliantly acted.

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Preview of the Afterlife

Do you ever find that random things you do come together to weave a thread? That’s my experience recently. What made me pick up Sherlock Holmes again and then rent the 2005-6 series Afterlife and restart some creative writing, all with the theme of spirits. I’m still sorting out my thoughts on Afterlife before the next inspiration begins, but I just wanted anyone reading this to know there is somebody there…

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