Monday, 31 December 2012

In Memoriam 2012 (part five)

27th August – Freddie Fletcher, 71 

Former chief executive of Newcastle United during the 1990s.

28th August – Rhodes Boyson, 87
Outspoken Tory MP who looked like he had stepped out of a Dickensian novel.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

2012 In Memoriam (part four)

17th July – Marsha Singh, 57

Labour MP for Bradford West from 1997 to 2012, when he resigned due to poor health. He had previously been employed by the Bradford Community Health Trust.

17th July – Morgan Paull, 67 

Actor best known for his role in Blade Runner, where as Holden he gives new applicants the test to see if they are Repplicants or not.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

On Music of a Folkish Nature


Where would our lives be without music? Probably a damn sight more drab.

I was recently asked to list my favourite musical acts. I said I could probably, with a small degree of difficulty, narrow it down to a top 500, if I was being super critical. At which point both Jon Arnold and Tom Jordan, betraying the sound mind and judgment I had thought they possessed, seemed to suggest a series of blog articles on my musical interests might be useful. Not to let folk down, here we are, a mere fourteen months on, and the first hints of that. I pride myself on my punctuality, you know.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Michael's Awesome Mum episode 1

It may come to the surprise of few who follow my ramblings on a regular basis that my mum is, frankly, awesome. As you might expect from the first woman in her family to go to university, who scored top marks in the wrong exam she once took by accident, and whose Double First came easily, relatively speaking. Not to add her long standing SF geekdom - she wrote her school book project on Wyndham's The Crysalids. Or her wonderful cooking, adored on...about three continents.

Or the fact that, due to her expertise, she can smell someone at the back of a bus smoking some illicit drugs, and tell not only the quality of the drugs, but where they come from.

She's an academic historian, you see, who currently specialises in the adulteration of quinine and like medications in the 19th and 20th Century. This means she gets to go around the world giving conference papers and research for books which she is, to date, the only qualified person in the world to write.

And for perspective, she does all this, despite having been diagnosed with polyneuritis when I was about six. Think arthritis, but of the nerves. When I was six, there was very little known about the illness, so Mum had to take early retirement. She kept going though, and by the late 90s, acupuncture relief was available. This was designed to get sufferers to enjoy a normal life best they could.

Mum's response was to go back to work. And then take on more days. And more classes. And do more research. And wind up back fall time, taking on higher importances jobs by the year.

And she does this all with this stupid illness, having the highest work ethic of anyone I know bar none. My response to a migraine is to curl up in bed! Mums response to losing all feeling in her hand is to travel to Chicago to look at their university records!

Coupling the travails of world class travelling academic, and top class SF geek, Mum has met many famous people, and remains brutally honest about all of them. One trip down South wound up with her hearing the call "Stop that kid" only for a child to dart past her as she was talking to another, swiftly followed by an older woman and an old man struggling to catch the child before it ran out into a vast shopping mall. Between the three, they just about caught the runaway toddler.

Mum was my Mum. The older (than mum) woman was Lis Sladden. The old man was Nick Courtney. And the kid? Sophie Aldred's.

All lovely, charming folk I'm assured.

Oh, and the one mum was talking to at that moment? Someone in full Dalek regalia, who tried to help but was overcome by both his outfit and laughter.

This sort of thing only happens to mum.

So, on a recent trip to the US, she may have topped even that. I can't mind where on her trip it was, but a studio were filming on the campus and as a result,  the library she was working in was closing early. So mum was on her way to the library that morning, when who should she see in a car outside the library, but Samuel L Jackson!

A bit surprised, she said "Goodness, its Samuel L Jackson!"

A passerby woman turned and told her "Nah, it can't be!"

At which point Jackson leaned out of his car window and announced in his unmistakable booming tones  "Fuck right, I'm Samuel L Jackson!" He then gave both of them a big smile.

An American friend has pointed out the unfairness of this, as they live in the US and have never bumped into Jackson.

But that's just what Mum does.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

2012 In Memoriam (part 2)

Here I find a passage quoted from one Loveman(2) who says "In Poe one finds (it*) a tour de force, in Maupassant a nervous engagement of the flagellated climax. To Bierce, simply & sincerely, diabolism held in its tormented depths a legitimate and reliant means to the end". This appears to me to have no meaning.M.R. James, in a letter to Nicholas Llewellyn Davies, a student.

I believe the warning in it to be one worthy of taking on board (as well as being noted for being one of the finest put downs recorded). Let's hope there is no slipping into ostentatious warbling within the tributes now.

So war heroes, personal heroes, writers, actors, politicians, song-writers: all equal in the final parting.

Friday, 9 November 2012

For Francis, Armistice

"When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany's only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"Harry Patch

So, Armistice Day approaches again. Before long, we'll pass the century of what it marks. The ubiquitous poppy is out on sale everywhere, and worn with pride by many.

The war to end wars hurt every family in the UK. And many other countries worldwide, we were not alone in that grief, but I can only speak on such a personal topic on a personal level.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Semi-Defending Liverpool FC

(previously written in various forms on the Gallifrey Base "Liverpool in Crisis" thread, where I am one of their long running non-fans...)

When done properly, club and fan are a symbiotic relationship, both helping the other.

I feel the same about Thistle - they may drive me up the bloody wall, but when my granddad died, they provided emotional support for my family, when I had my first breakdown, several of their fans got me out of the house and into a friendly environment to improve my health a lot quicker than it would have. And when they were in trouble, on the pitch I cheered as loud as my rubbish lungs would let me, and gave as much money to the club's funds as I could. Symbiotic help.


Friday, 2 November 2012

The Football Blether pilot

(This is, as you might guess, a pilot of a thing I might do more often if people like. Instead of long rambles about football, just a few snippets here and there, with links to news stories and articles you might like.


Thistle's start. Not the League cup exit, or losing to Raith parts. But being 2nd in the table in November keeps a wee bit away from relegation for now, and some of our wins were achieved with such swagger and attacking brilliance that it is nice to see other teams and the media pretend we are promotion contenders for a little while longer before Dunfermline run away with the league. Enjoy every Indian Summer if you don't get many, I say!

Dortmund beating Real Madrid 2-1. In fact, Real's league performance, seeing them so many points behind Barcelona!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

2012 In Memoriam (Part 1)

This stemmed from a conversation with Toby Hadoke last May, over BAFTA/Oscar tributes and their ability to omit people. And then from many, many conversations with poor old Jon Arnold following.

Arnold's belief, and one I share, is that if someone makes a mark on your life, however oblique, it is right to tip a hat of respect towards them at their death. They could have written a book you love, or been a hero of your childhood (or adulthood), or even had a passing role in an episode of a TV show you liked. Whatever they did, it is right to acknowledge their role in an aspect of your life, much as we hope others will do for us in the future when we are gone.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Depression part 2

So its apparently Mental Health Day. The idea of this day puzzles me, much like Valentines Day does. Is this the day we all care about mental health issues, and the rest of the year they can get to fuck? It seems a strange message to be sending out. This is the day for caring about people suffering life altering illness, tomorrow can be National Coming Out Day for another set of folk we like to prejudice against, but will patronise for the time being.

Though the WHO are for it, and it seems to help people, so who am I to be Oscar the Grouch about it? Just feels like it should be more 24/7.

I'd like to claim in the ten years since I was diagnosed, and the twenty-one years I've been recognised as suffering from what we'll call depression for short hand reasons, that understanding and tolerance has become universal. I can't, but I'd like to. And even that seems a bit unfair, as it is much better now than it was in my child hood. Or so it seems.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Brilliant People IV: Sir Nicholas Winton/Lakshmi Sahgal

There is a saying, oft repeated, in British circles, that “the good die young”. It’s meant to comfort you when a loved dies prematurely. It’s not to say that longevity is a sign of evil, just compare Heydrich to Wiesenthal for example. Two fine examples of long lived greatness come to our attention today, and both made their mark in a way on that most tumultuous of events, World War Two.

Sir Nicholas Winton 

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Twilight Zone republished

Gav recently mentioned he'd not seen much of the Twilight Zone, so in a effort to introduce him to one of my favourite TV shows, I republish this old list of my 20 favourite episodes. Since it was first published, I've seen much more of the series, and the biggest omission personally since then was Maple Street, that wonderful tale of paranoia.

That said, the following twenty are all worthwhile watches I recommend.

Now over to Me from 2 and a half years ago:


(first published January 2010)

20 The Grave

WHICH ONE? – Lee Marvin is dared to go to the grave of his dead rival at midnight.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – On paper, this should be a run of the mill “revenge from beyond the grave” affair. What raises it is a top notch performance from Marvin in the lead role, as well as good supporting performances from Strother Martin (as in “What we have here is failure to communicate” Strother Martin) and Stafford Repp, about half a decade before he became famous for playing Chief O’ Hara in the Adam West Batman series.  This episode is dripping with atmosphere, from the incidental music to the wonderful direction, all building up to the moment when the rest in the pub go looking for Marvin. It’s High Noon going nightmarishly wrong.

19 I Am the Night – Color me Black

WHICH ONE? – The one where the townsfolk want to execute an innocent man, and the night never lifts.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – Moraltastic. Rod Serling was never one to skip the moralising in his show, and this one has one of the most unsettling suggestive endings.  The idea of the dark night-time just never relinquishing its hold on the world, and how paranoid it drives everyone, was a novel idea. The whole thing is about absolute, unrelenting hatred whole towns can produce towards innocents. One of the darkest (pun intended) and bleakest shows the Twilight Zone ever did.

18 What’s in the Box

WHICH ONE? – The one where the man sees the TV act out the future murder of his wife by his own hand.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – It’s bloody creepy, that’s why.  The twist at the end, though predictable, is made utterly terrifying just through the look one character gives to the camera with the last shot. That, and the idea of turning on the TV, and seeing your room on the TV, and you murdering your wife, is quite the nasty one too.

17 The Purple Testament

WHICH ONE? – The one where the soldier sees a purple mark on the faces of those about to die in war time.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – Rod Serling loved going back to the war stories of the Second World War, probably because in them he found great ammunition for his humanist avocations. The idea of a death harbinger is creepy enough; there are enough legends about them. Set it in the war and have someone see a mark over the faces of those about to die in it, and it increases the tempo. Serling liked war as much as he liked Nazis. This one has a great hook, and builds to an admittedly slightly predictable finish, but for what’s on the screen, it’s pretty good.

16 Eye of the Beholder

WHICH ONE? – The one where the disfigured girl covered up in bandages is undergoing one last operation to make her look normal.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – In a recent poll, this topped a list by fans. It has one of the great twists of all Twilight Zone episodes. It has some of the best direction seen on the show. It has an astounding performance by William D. Gordon. It focuses on Serling’s great loves of humanism and how we perceive others. A must see episode. So what if I have fifteen episodes ranked above it? I love nearly the entire damn show.

15 Printers Devil

WHICH ONE? – Burgess Meredith is the Devil, making sensational horrific new stories in a local newspaper come true.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – It has Burgess Meredith in it, for godssakes! Do you need any other reason? There’s a great moment in this where he puts a cigar in his mouth and suddenly his voice transforms into his later voice for The Penguin! This is pretty much a Meredith showcase, and all of those particular Twilight Zones are great. In this one he plays the best Devil to appear on the show, and finally getting a shot at being the bad guy, he plays with subtle menace and expert form. If it wasn’t for another Twilight Zone episode where the guy absolutely outshines this performance, this episode would be higher. (But you’ll find out which in a bit!) Crosses the line between humour, obsession and tension easily. One of the best hour long Twilight Zones.

14 You Drive

WHICH ONE? – Man commits hit and run on a wee boy who dies. The car is not happy.

WHY’s IT GREAT? – This one just beat out A Thing about Machines. They both have similar plots, but while the other was mostly about revenge in a Beyond the Door by Phillip K Dick way, this one is about justice, and works that bit stronger.  I love the idea of a car bringing its owner to justice for vehicular manslaughter.

13 Nothing in the Dark     


WHICH ONE? -  Old woman lives barricaded in her house, terrified that Mr Death will come to her if she opens the door.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – Great little story. Only about three actors in it. Just when you think it’s going to be one of those “BOO!” episodes, it turns out to be quite heart-warming.  People tend to think of the Twilight Zone as this horror show. While it had its delves into horror on many occasions, that was only part of its remit. Other stories, like this one, looked into the supernatural event not as a cause for alarm, but for affirmation, and this is one of the best. Not all supernatural entities are going to harm you after all.

12 Shadow Play

WHICH ONE? – Dennis Weaver, sentenced to execution, tries to warn everyone they are a figment of his dreams and if they kill him, everyone dies.

WHY’S IT GREAT? – This one is like a bomb. Ticking down to annihilation for all. Everything is paced and tense to go along with this. Is it a dream, or is Dennis Weaver’s character insane? We don’t find out till the very end, but the build up to that is one of the best Twilight Zone moments. Especially as Weaver keeps pointing out who everyone was in his dream the previous night!

11 Escape Clause

WHICH ONE? – Man makes pact with the Devil for immortality.

WHY’S IT GREAT? – Walter Bedeker is an arse. He really is. One of the least likeable protagonists of all Twilight Zone episodes. Nothing he does is likeable. So really, it’s great to see someone that horrid cut down to size.

10 Perchance to Dream

WHICH ONE? – Man goes to Psychiatrist to tell him how he can’t sleep for fear of this terrible nightmare that is stalking him.

WHY’S IT GREAT? – One of the scariest Twilight Zone episodes.  The dreams sequences are unsettling. The build up to the twist before the twist is unbelievable. The slow sinking paranoia of the main character is macabre.

9 A Stop at Willoughby

WHICH ONE? – A man keeps walking up on the train when it stops at a town called Willoughby, a place on no map with no train station on the line.

WHY IT’s GREAT? – It’s a great mystery, with a great twist. The wife claims that “It’s just [her] luck to be married to someone whose greatest ambition in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!” And I don’t really see a problem with that ambition. A jovial atmosphere makes the solution all the more a kick in the guts. Rod Serling claimed this was his favourite episode of the first series. Probably for the kick in the guts.

8 It’s a Good Life

WHICH ONE? – Billy Mumy is the little boy who puts people in the cornfield.


It’s a good thing I’ve done here. It really is.

7 Five Characters in Search of an Exit

WHICH ONE? – Five people wake up at the bottom of a large cylindrical prison and try to get out.

WHY IT’s GREAT – A brigadier, a clown, a tramp, a ballerina and a bagpiper wake to find themselves at the bottom of a giant cylindrical prison. Amnesiac. No idea who each other are. Try to get out of the prison. They find that if each other stand on the other’s shoulders, one can get over the top. So they try it out. Only to soon wish they hadn’t bothered...

6 Death’s-Head Revisited

WHICH ONE? – The Nazi travels back to the Death Camp to relive his glories, and meets a few old friends...

WHY’s IT GREAT? – Who doesn’t like seeing Nazi’s get held to account for their crimes? Captain Lutze must have been a challenging role for Oscar Beregi Jr to play, as a Hungarian who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but he rises to the challenge and produces a spellbinding performance in one of the few leading roles in his great but sadly shortened career. (Like so many talented actors to appear on the show, Beregi Jr fell afoul of the Curse of the Twilight Zone, dying from a heart attack in his 50s!) “This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice.” Shivers.

5 The Howling Man

WHICH ONE? – The one where the man arrives at a Monastery in the middle of a storm, only to find the monks have captured the Devil!

WHY’S IT GREAT? – John Carradine. The main idea of the story, can you trap the Devil to save the world? The main performances.  The setting. The soundtrack of howling wind and rain to go with howling man. The howling of a man begging for mercy trapped in a cell, who may or may not be the Devil. The freaky appearances of the Monks.  Listverse recently called this the best Twilight Zone ever made.

4 The Thirty-Fathom Grave

WHICH ONE? – A modern battleship finds a lost WW2 Sub stuck at the bottom of the Atlantic, but there’s noise coming from it...

WHY IT’S GREAT? – I love stories which you get feed clues here and there about what’s actually going on, and just when you think you’ve understood it, it hits you with a realisation so sudden and horrific, you’re just left staring at the TV or computer crying “Oh good lord!”.  This is one of the hour long Twilight Zones, which makes the punch in the gut all the more horrible. None of the characters, bar one, are harmed physically by the ordeal, though one suspects it may stay in their minds for a while. From the build up of the madness in a crew member, and the Captain trying to convince the man – a close friend – to take some time to relax, this show grips. Then comes the tapping, thirty fathoms down at the bottom of the Atlantic. An old forgotten Submarine that sunk with all aboard, to meet Davy Jones. And something down there is making noise. If this was you or me or anyone else, we’d bolt 100 miles the other way and get ashore ASAP. But this isn’t us. This is the Twilight Zone, and this is the Navy, and they decide the best thing to do is to go down and investigate...

3 Long Distance Call

WHICH ONE? – Gran dies, and then starts to contact her grandson on a toy phone.

WHY’S IT GREAT? – Billy Mumy is in this one too, as a nice innocent little boy, just showing how good he was at acting. I was sold this story as a nice heart-warming story. So we watched it, and at the end, myself and Mandy just turned to each other and went, “Well, the lights are staying on tonight.” It was fucking terrifying.  And I don’t get spooked by TV all that easily. The gran dies, but tells her little grandson that she’ll keep in touch. Then she starts to phone him up on an old toy phone she bought him for his birthday. And the mum hears her mother-in-law’s dead voice on the toy phone! Then the boy starts trying to kill himself under the suggestion of his gran, who wants her little boy to join him because she’s lonely on the other side. There’s nothing heart-warming about that! Who wrote this one? Chuck Beaumont right at the very end of his life, which gives the show an even creepier subtext. Well, that makes me feel even better! Apart from the scares and the absolutely horrible plot, this is a bloody good episode full of great direction, acting and following a fantastic script. But if you’re looking for heart-warming, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

2 One More Pallbearer

WHICH ONE? – Jealous millionaire brings down three old adversaries to a bunker before a Nuclear War, and tells them he will save their lives if only they apologise to him.

WHY IT’s GREAT? – Joe Wiseman died last October (2009). He was a great actor. Who? Dr No! First ever Bond villain. He’s the lead in this, as the millionaire who holds a grudge, and brings three old adversaries over on the brink of Armageddon. The solution he has is quite simple. Nuclear war is about to break out.  Wiseman will save the lives of his three adversaries if they will apologise for their wrongdoings towards him. Only problem is, they refuse to. Now, where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? Wiseman’s character is about to have severe trouble doing this. Brilliant story. Blistering performance.

1 The Obsolete Man

WHICH ONE? – Burgess Meredith is on trial for the crime of being Obsolete. The evidence? He reads. The sentence? Execution, in a manner of his choosing.

WHY IT’S GREAT? – Remember how I said one Burgess Meredith story was yet to come? Well, it tops everything. He gives one of his best performances here, absolutely towering over everyone in a display of sheer acting virtuosity. If this was a film, it’d have been Oscar worthy. It’s a great story this, the most horrible of Serling’s totalitarian regimes. It’s a great script. The other actors do good jobs. But Meredith is so alive, so vociferously raging against the light, so on top of his game. After seeing something like several thousand TV show episodes, hundreds of plays and shitloads of movies, this one of my favourite acting performances. And a performance this good, coupled with a script so scathingly brilliant and direction so crisp, shows exactly why The Twilight Zone is second only to the good Doctor in terms of my favourite TV shows.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

What Happens in the Vacuum

You've got to be mad to write really. It helps at least. The hours, if you are serious about your craft, could see you sue yourself for breach of the human rights act. The dreaded writers block, which never shows up until right before a deadline. The need to be a bit antisocial at times. And the fact that approximately 0% of all the writers who ever lived lucked into comfortable pay immediately.

Oh yes, writer's pay. Funny thing, that. Sections of my family were convinced for years (hell, some sections are still convinced!) that writing was the path to immediate success and money, and my lack of either was down to being far too lazy. Always have a helpful neurosis on hand too!

The truth of course was helpfully laid out by Jim Steel:

"I think the average figure quoted is something like £6000 per year, but of course that's with people like JK Rowling pulling the average way up."

Most writers make pittance. In fact, many make nothing whatsoever.

You need to be mad to write, really.

I made nothing but friendly smiles from my writing. I like those: happiness doesn't buy you money, but it does encourage more writing which may lead to money.

And given I hate sounding like a Dickensian villain, one should point out, it's also quite useful to actually like writing.

Anyhow,  that sounds like preamble to a point. It is.

As of this morning, I got paid for my first bit of writing ever. A short story called 'What Happens in the Vacuum'. It was based on this memory I had for a long time of a clip from a kids show which turned out to be false memory. So I decided to use it instead.

It's sort of SF (well, by my standards) and concerns a futuristic game show with a bit of a difference.

The story can be read here.

I don't feel right talking about the price it earned. The symbolism means far more to me. I do however beg pardon one second for this brag of sorts. It's not everyday you make your first ever proper sale as a writer, after all.

This story was edited for me by Justin Jessel, so many thanks to him!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Brilliant People III: Michael Bond/Judith Kerr

Michael Bond

One day, a few years ago, Michael Bond was on a train, he says, when he overheard two elderly women talking about him. “Oh that Michael Bond was great.” Said one, and he admits he felt a burst of pride. “Shame he died years ago.” Said the second, and any swelling of ego was swiftly deflated. His ability to tell such stories with a wink and a nod shows that even at eighty-six, one of our finest children’s authors still has it. In the creation of Paddington Bear, Bond provided the 20th Century with one of its finest, its loveliest, and its culturally important icons.

Michael Bond was born in 1926, the same year Gustav Stresemann won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Stanley Baldwin declared martial law over the General Strike.  He was born in Reading, which has a Premiership football club now, but in those days had to settle for being on the River Thames, and having a train link to London that terminated at Paddington station. Funny, that. He survived this tumultuous year to be born in, and later survived the Blitz, and war service, to grow up to be a seemingly mild mannered young writer sell odd bits to various sources from 1945 onwards, as well as working as a camera operator for the BBC. He’d been suggested several times to write for children, by people who could spot talent when they saw it, but had never considered until a chance meeting that changed his life.

A chance meeting with a stuffed toy.

Bond explains in his biography:

"I bought a small toy bear on Christmas Eve 1956. I saw it left on a shelf in a London store and felt sorry for it. I took it home as a present for my wife Brenda and named it Paddington as we were living near Paddington Station at the time. I wrote some stories about the bear, more for fun than with the idea of having them published. After ten days, I found that I had a book on my hands. It wasn’t written specifically for children, but I think I put into it the kind things I liked reading about when I was young."

Write what you know. Write what you love. Just write and see what happens. Within the space of one anecdote, Bond presents three useful mantras for young writers. Which sums up the brilliance of Michael Bond, to entertain and educate within the same syllables is no easy feat. I’m also glad to know I’m not the only adult in existence that sees the sole teddy bear left in a shop and feels bad for it.

A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958. It was a sensation, which still holds up as well today as it did on publication. Like subsequent tales, it manages to describe the adventures of a refugee Andean Bear from Darkest Peru and its reactions to life in modern MacMillan Britain in a way that is both gripping and wonderfully humorous. The Michael Bond stand in, Mr Brown, acts as a great foil against the intelligent but naive and easily befuddled bear, as does the ever-frustrated Mr Curry act with great trepidation as the permanently put upon straight man, Hyacinth Bucket three decades early and with an ego as swiftly deflated.

“The great advantage of having a bear as a central character”, says Bond “is that he can combine the innocence of a child with the sophistication of an adult.” One of the earliest Paddington stories, A Bear in Hot Water, remains possibly my favourite, as he attempts to have a bath, which as we all know is a tricky operation at the best of times, and more so if you’ve never seen one before. The results are typical Paddington, and Mandy might jokingly add here that his declaration “never to want one of those again” at the end is a mantra I took too easily to heart growing up. Heh.

The Paddington books would live forever if they were merely great children’s books. They are that, but so much more. For the tenancy at the heart of the novels, and the series, is of charity and love, and a beloved children’s series that preaches both of those is worth so much more in my eyes. They exist from the very beginning, as the Browns find Paddington at the station that names him. The nametag on his blue duffel coat, which reads the legend: “Please look after this Bear”. What marks out Mr and Mrs Brown as the books human heroes, and ours, is that they do. The parallels existed at the time between World War evacuees and the bear, as much as they do now between the bear and asylum seekers. The exotic other appears in need and the characters group round to help it. That’s a brilliant message to give to our children, and all the more powerful for Michael Bond not realising his books could be read in that light, so the message is not hammered over the head of the readers.

When Bond came to realise the modern significance and reading people were given to his creation, it would have been easy for him to back away from it slowly. But that has never been his style. He took it head on and cherished it. When writing his second last Paddington novel in 2007*, Here and Now, Bond said in an interview with the Guardian:

"I think it's quite good not to sweep it under the carpet," he said. According to Bond, there's no duty for writers to explore difficult subjects, but authors should be "aware of them, and aware that life isn't easy for someone who's left their country and can't go back".
Paddington "hasn't changed at all", but the new stories "reflect life as it is", Bond said. "It is a very different world to the world of the original book. I think life was much more settled then."
Guardian 11th December 2007

*Second last at time of writing, as Bond has just finished a new Paddington novel, and claims the lovable bear may have a few more hits in him yet. Long may they continue!

The ideas don’t just stop at the bear himself though. Nicholas Lezzard noted a few years before in the same paper that: “it is nice that Bond took the trouble to introduce Mr Gruber, the kindly, courteous Hungarian antique-shop owner, representative of the displaced wartime immigrants whom Bond came to know when working for the BBC Monitoring Service.”

His book series earned a television spin off, with a genius pastiche of Singin’ in the Rain a highlight, but you can buy Paddington everything’s these days.

Not merely content to be a symbol of charity within his novels, Paddington is now the symbol of charity in real life, having been the mascot of Action Medical Research since 1976. Bond’s involvement with the charity has raised millions of pounds worth of aid to help babies and young children in desperate need.

We so rarely see a children’s icon, which promotes the ancient rights of persecuted peoples to come to this land, that it is right to champion it when it comes along. Bond admits he hadn’t considered that reading of his loved character when he devised it, but he fully endorses it as a reading.

Anyone can write a ripping yarn if they put their mind to it. To do that, and create a character which promotes love and charity, and all that is good in society, while poking fun at all the stupidity of red tape and egos and the like, is wonderful. To use that character to help in real life, and to write and become active within the charities though is a different beast all together. Paddington Bear and Michael Bond. They’re pretty much inseparable. Both have done the world a great deal of good.

At a mere fifty-four years and eighty-six years respectively, may they do the world a great good for many more years to come.

Judith Kerr

“I really did have this dream when I was nine or 10 years old. It was very odd, because I knew all about Hitler and what was going on, but I also used to have fears that he was hiding behind the curtain in the lavatory. As a child, you can think of a thing in two different ways at the same time, and I'm not sure it doesn't happen to you as an adult, too, if you're very frightened. The other reality is, if anything, more frightening.”

A fine writer who is now a supportive mother and grandmother to other writers (“who write corkers” she says), Judith Kerr continues to write novels for children even to this day. Like Bond, she is of the highest rank of children’s writer, both fun and important.

When Kerr was a child, her family had to escape from the Nazis. A family friend she remembered, who thought he would be safe as his only connection by blood to the Jews was a grandmother he never met, was later killed. A choice of which cuddly toy to bring on the flight to France and later England spurned the title of her autobiographical tale of childhood, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. The author of the Mog books, and countless other children’s novels, and the widow and guiding force of Nigel Kneale, Judith Kerr is still writing in her ninetieth year.

All great children’s writers have one classic to their name. Judith Kerr has not only Pink Rabbit, but also the entire Mog series and the wonderful The Tiger Who Came to Tea. She was a writer who worked for the Red Cross, and writing had run in her family: not only had her dad been a well-respected writer in Germany before they had to flee, but her daughter is aiming to take up writing as a career also. Like Bond, she has an OBE for children’s writing, but combines it with Holocaust education. Like Bond, she manages to juggle great works of writing with great feats of charity.

The Tiger, a story that seems ageless but was born in 1968, is the ideal story of a human like tiger whose success has now transformed into plays and memorabilia, as well as several foreign language translations.
"Judith has created a totally feasible unfeasible experience, the juxtaposition of two realities in a way that would be impossible in our world. The result is both very funny and slightly unsettling."
Michael Rosen (a man who knows a thing or two about children’s books)

Her survival was of a traumatic childhood: her dad, even before the escape, had bodyguards in case of a Nazi assassination plot, and later had trouble finding work, tragically ending his life; her mother, wound up a translator at the Nurnberg trials; and her brother Michael was imprisoned during the World War as a friendly enemy alien. Even now, Kerr recounts her child hardships with nary a bitterness in the world, which makes one almost over awed.

Mog the cat, the forgetful cat, remained a children’s favourite until Kerr killed him off for good in 2002. It was important, she felt, to convey how to deal with the tragic loss of a loved pet to younger readers.

She is a lady who came a long way in her life, and continues to teach with all her wise words and books.

Writing is as much as tool for learning as it is for entertaining. When we combine both, we have the legends. These two were just two of my favourites who combined both.

I started this series in a more jovial tone. To ease the reader in. Next time, we get a bit darker and edgier, but for all the right reasons, as we focus on one ordinary man in a horrific situation who did more than almost anyone could have, and is rightfully loved worldwide in his old age. And a woman, sadly passed on since I came to think of this series, who is for my money one of the most inspirational, brave and couragous people who ever lived. Till next time!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Brilliant People II: John Lambie/Amy Dumas

Last time in our brilliant people series, we looked at an under looked Australian comic, and a sports star who returned from near fatal illness. Today, we turn our attentions to the world of football, and pro-wrestling. An interesting mix, you might say. Certainly. However, I do believe in easing an audience gently into a project, and both people are, as is everyone on the list, certainly brilliant.

So today, we focus on a man who proved himself too big in stature for any small job, and a woman who made her bid for equality between the sexes in the last place anyone would expect to find it.

John Lambie

John Lambie was Partick Thistle manager. Aha, I can hear the sceptics cry, he’s selling out already. A pure case of writers’ nepotism if ever I heard one. A tough audience!

Lambie was Thistle manager on three occasions, four if you count his short caretaker role in 2004. He was not a stranger to controversy in previous jobs, his two stints at Hamilton included knocking Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, and having his car rammed off the road by his own supporters he had annoyed! On his retirement, he announced, “FIFA should get someone else to run this game as those clowns know nothing.” A chain smoker of cigars with a penchant of swearing that bordered on the Tarantino-esque, he was and remains one of the more peculiar figures of Scottish football and society as a whole. Not a man able to take the quiet route either, a trip to Blackpool once led to a series of unfortunate moments, culminating in a punctured lung.

People who want his managerial stats can get them briefly: three promotions, five successful fights against relegation, and taking a team from the Second Division trap door to top league football within two years stands up for itself. He did this despite a distinct disbelief in certain aspects of the game. One time, when bemoaning the need for a Reserves side to fulfil reserves team football, he asked, “Where am I to find people for that?” When a roving reporter suggested it would be a natural progression from the youth side, Lambie responded: “Oh I don’t have one of those either.” He did also once suggest that the best way to deal with a concussed player was to “tell him he’s Pele.” A man from the school that burned down before they built the Old School.

His gift of the gab was legendary. The time the BBC decided to do a documentary on the Thistle, they were soon to realise the fierce nature of his lingo, as he “buggered up the bleep machine on his first team talk” (Jonathan Watson). He didn’t need to swear to get a laugh though, and he often used his appearance, as respectable older Glaswegian* to turn folks lofty opinions on their head. An example came at a gala ball where he was being awarded for services to football. All the great and the good of Scottish football were there, in their suits, black ties, and serious faces. The interviewer brought in to speak to the Thistle manager made the error of starting the interview with the question “What is your biggest achievement?” Quick as a flash, John replied: “First time I took Viagra” and brought the house down.

He was a big supporter of the Scottish National Party, having represented them in a failed bid to enter West Lothian council in 1999.

*Yes, I’m aware he’s from Whitburn, pre-empting angry missives. “Honorary Glaswegian” then.

A personal anecdote if you don’t mind: when my grandfather got MRSA and wasn’t expected to live long, he was in the Western Infirmary. By a stroke of serendipity, John Lambie was visiting the Stoke ward around the corner from the ward Bob was in. On hearing a long time Thistle fan was poorly a few feet away, Lambie decided to pop his head in and wish my granddad all the best. It meant the bloody world to him, and his rallying from near death – he delayed it for over a year – seemed to stem from this unexpected moment of loveliness. I think you can always tell the manner of a man from how he acts when the public eye isn’t watching, and in this moment, John Lambie will always be thought of as a man of pure gold for me.

That he is an absolute legend for me and my granddad’s football team is an added bonus.

So despite any flaws the man may have had in the art of football, he’ll go down in history for me as man of great, brilliant stature.

Amy Dumas

I admit it can be hard for a woman to establish herself in many areas seen as mans domain, even unfairly so. We only recently saw the first female winner of the Best Director Oscar. Whilst Britain had its first female leader in 1979, it was only within the last decade we had our first female Home Secretary, and we are yet to have a female Chancellor. Within the testosterone-filled arenas of sport, it becomes doubly more so. Within the choreographed elements of a fictional sport, more than that. So we focus on Amy Dumas, known to her legion of fans as Lita, a professional wrestler. A woman who took on the men at their own rigged game and came out having down as much for female equality, more than one might have expected.

I remember the first time she took a bump from a male wrestler well. For a number of weeks leading up to it, the WWF had established Lita’s knack for jumping off the apron of the ring and delivering Hurricanranas to neutralise outside help for any number of nefarious foes her significant other in storyline, Essa Rios, was facing. This time, as Rios was in the midst of losing his title, she went for the same on the late Eddie Guerrero, who responded by holding firm and slamming her to the ground in a powerbomb, her back smashing off the barely matted ringside area. All at once, the crowd gasped, making the sound only a crowd of twenty thousand all gasping at once can make.

Now a word of warning before we get the Zero Tolerance brigade out here. Pro-wrestling is fake, in that instead of being a sport, it is more of a performance art. Which opens up its own can of worms regarding woman in pro-wrestling. My view has always been that the best way to promote equality is to show the women being as good as the men. In the world of actual combat sport, that could be a bit tricky. Within the realm of theatre, actresses have proven themselves time and again to be the equal of the actors. Lita should be able to give and take as good as any male opponent within the squared circle; else, the women are relegated to their own little ghetto, as happens time and time again within wrestling circles. This former view is the one Amy Dumas decided to take.

Having started as a valet, Lita was getting more involved in matches until it seemed only a matter of time before she had matches of her own. Paired off with the Hardy Boys (Jeff and her real life boyfriend Matt) she started a feud with former glamour model Trish Stratus, a rivalry that was to last the rest of their careers as Stratus herself surprised all her critics by training like a dervish and becoming a fine technician herself. Her popularity set to explode; Lita won the women’s title off the boss’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon in summer 2000.

She was swiftly getting a reputation for doing anything the boys would do. Need a high spot in a cage match? Lita was there. Her boys were in a ladder match on the biggest show of the year? She’d take some spots grown men would be scared to. In an extremely rare event, she even bladed, in the first and only case I can recall of a female wrestler doing that in the WWF. (Again, for those who don’t know, until the threat of Hep became ever present in wrestling, facial bleeding was often encouraged to increase the drama of a storyline. Some wrestlers became famous for “wearing the crimson mask.” Much like spoiling whodunit in a Christie novel, it makes sense in context, sort of.)

The point is though that at this point in time in wrestling history, women were eye candy. They were there to titillate with their “puppies” (a phrase I hated hearing and hate writing just as much) and did little much than appear so they could get the teenage male audience. The women’s division was booked with all the care of Eric Saward in a drunken stupor. In doing everything the male wrestlers did, and doing it better than a good deal of the male wrestlers could, Amy Dumas wasn’t so much breaking the mould as creating a completely new mould for the wrestling business. She was ground breaking in a way few women had been allowed to be in the business, and all through a never say die attitude.

“I was this attractive women who guys could appreciate, but who was kinda tomboyish and not too intimidating – I was kinda the girl that could live next door, I added a new dimension to what a woman could be on the show.” (Responding to the question about why so many young girls looked up to her)

An attitude which was to bring the most out of her when it looked like her career was over, victim of a freak neck injury rehearsing for a non-wrestling related TV show. Over a year was spent on the shelf, and a lesser person would have called it a day. A career which had titles already, and legions of fans. Not a bad resume. Giving up the ghost, however, was not in Amy Dumas’ repertoire. Instead, she fought and rehabbed her injury, till she was able to return to her job a year and a bit later. Her popularity had not diminished in her absence; indeed, she seemed more popular than ever. In December 2004, along with her eternal rival Trish, she became the first female to ever main event Monday Night Raw.*

*Note, this was the second all female RAW main event. The first, mentioned above (with Stephanie) had also featured Lita though!

“That means a lot to me, because women are not typically given a lot of credit in the business. Those are proud moments in my history because we were not only viewed as top Divas, but top entertainers to hold the main event spot.”

Let’s put that in perspective. This is a spot reserved for the greats in wrestling. Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, and so on. Dumas had become a main event, earned a main event spot in her own right. This was no mercy shot. It was completely deserved. Lita’s return chance to win the Women’s title back against Trish, a woman who had once been her rival and turned into her protégé, and who had turned heel in her absence, was the biggest draw on the show. The cheer when she won with her trademark Moonsault – again, a move rarely performed by females at this point – was massive.

“I loved being out there in front of the crowd, though that the shortest thing in your day.”

From valet to legit main event commodity in four years, and surviving a career threatening injury to boot, Amy Dumas had come a long way by December 2004. The road bump which was about to swerve into her career was as sudden as it was unexpected.

It was a tragedy that her reputation was to suffer, and for all the wrong reasons. When a case of alleged adultery comes into the public eye, the public tend to lay the blame square on the shoulders of the female partner, whilst the male gets all the sympathy. So it was when Matt Hardy and Amy Dumas’ relationship crumbled before their fans eyes in 2005, even more public for Hardy’s raging online about it. At the time, it seemed clear cut that Dumas had snuck behind her long time boyfriend’s back and had an affair with his best friend. Morally dubious, granted, but so it goes. Of course, it turned out the whole thing was completly different from the version told to the public at the time, and Hardy’s inability to deal with what was reality and what was fiction was to harm Dumas’s reputation in the eyes of her fans, unfairly, and led to her premature retirement. It is, after all, seen now that Dumas and Hardy’s relationship had ended some time before her relationship with his best friend started, and that becomes fair game as far as partnerships are concerned. Not that any of the people who yelled “Slut” in her direction have apologised for it, though.

Her retirement was yet to come, though, as she wound up the manager of Edge at a pivotal moment in his career. Making the most of bad publicity, the pair became the hottest heels in town, and Dumas was now as hated as she was once loved.

At this point, she wound up in a hardcore match against Terry Funk. Hardcore meaning that weaponry (chairs and assorted Jackie Chan comedy film weaponry, not Kalashnikovs) are allowed. Funk is a crazy Texan who held World titles in an era when that was more legitimate, and in his middle age elected to fight in a whole host of insane match types. This is akin to a Tory boy going up against Dennis Skinner in the Commons, going up against Nadal at the French Open, or having your first improv session going against Robin Williams.

She was on the winning side, and managed to walk out of the arena in triumph.

“I’m really proud of my legacy. There’s no animosity. It’s just that in order to be successful at something, as I was in wrestling, you have to devote all of your time and energy to one thing at a time.”

The full time career of Amy Dumas ended in 2006. Wrestling fans, being so fickle in nature, had turned fully against her in view of her perceived slight against their favourite, Matt Hardy. Showing how fickle fans are, it is now 2012, Matt Hardy has become a joke figure who is unemployable, and Lita is a loved veteran. Some might say, with a full relish, that justice was done there.

““Some people develop addictions, some find it hard to cope with the isolation and most of us put our bodies through hell but I have to say I loved my time as a wrestler. I had a good run and I don’t regret a thing.”

The career and life of Amy Dumas has to go down as an incredible success. She made the most out of wrestling, yet got out before it took the best out of her, as it had to too many poor souls. She had a legacy second to few, and is a sure-fire future Hall of Famer. She was able to walk out on her own terms, the WWE having wanted to commit her to their shows for another five years; such was their admiration for her work. She now spends her time in her second career in a band, and has acted in a few cult films. However, just as impressive as her career, is the way she seemed to prove that the battle for equality between the sexes has no area in which it can’t win. She was treated as the equal of her male counterparts, and it was all down to her own hard work.

I’d like to claim pro-wrestling has been more tolerant to women wrestlers ever since, the WWE especially. Sadly, I can’t. Pro-wrestling has always been great in spite of its many glaring flaws, I’m afraid. 

Yet there is light at the end of that tunnel. Recently, the WWE surprised folk by having a female wrestler, AJ Lee, outright win a feud and get revenge over one of their top wrestlers, Daniel Bryan. Moreover, by completely out thinking a man portrayed as one of the smartest men on the roster. In doing so, she is now the show’s “boss” on screen. AJ Lee’s idol, who inspired her to take up pro-wrestling?

Amy Dumas, of course.

May she continue to inspire many more for years to come. We’re lucky to have an independent, fiery, brilliant woman of her nature around. 

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Brilliant People I: Shaun Micallef/Elena Baltacha

Welcome to the first in my series of Brilliant People. It will ostensibly be about people, who tended to be on the brilliant side. Not half-hearted folk here. Pure dead brilliant fellows, as a man swiftly ostracised off live radio might say.

I made three rules for this, two of which I broke instantly. Rule one was that all of the brilliant people had to be alive. Whilst I tried to err on the side of the living, a few celebratory worthy deceased folk have made the list. The second rule was that the two participants per article had to be linked. Short of inventing some links for people though, this didn’t work out either. The third, and the one I kept, is that each article must contain one male and one female person discussed. There are brilliant people of either sex, and this allows an equal amount of great men and women.

My reasoning for doing so was when one landmark figure of the 20th Century died recently, and much to my sadness, I found none of my friends had even heard of her. Apart from my mum, but my mum knows everything, from Stargate to quinine adulteration in the 1920s drug trade of South East Asia. Or so I hear.

Some may seem more worthy than others may, but it’s not a serious series of articles. It’s not the Booker Prize shortlist, or the Nobel committee. It’s just this humble writer expounding on people who ought to be better known and lauded for their successes or fights against adversity. In any number of fields. From gender politics to war, from writing to pro-wrestling. And everything in between.

Now, onto the first brilliant person!

Shaun Micallef 

“I think it’s important to give up something every now and then.” Micallef 

Millions of people know who Shaun Micallef is. He’s even won awards for brilliance. Both of these events tend to, however, on the whole, be limited to one island. That being Australia. Unlike the great two-way cultural osmosis that goes on between the Americans and the Brits, the Australian humour rarely cracks through to the mainstream here unless it has Rolf Harris in the middle of it. This is a shame, as it means one of the sharpest, funniest and daftest satirists living gets short shrift.

Micallef was born in 1962, a vintage year for people who will be fifty during the course of 2012. He had the route to comedy that John Cleese would have been proud of, starting as an insurance lawyer. Jumping careers to the world of comedy, possibly a world even more stressful, Micallef hopped via the multi-performer comedy Full Frontal, into hosting his own show, and then going to host a variety of shows on both television and radio over the last two decades. Not bad going for a kid of Irish/Maltese descent who grew up idolising Spike Milligan. What are we going to do?

I have been watching his Mad as Hell (a title neatly borrowed from Network), a satirical news show with sketches, and close to the Daily Show in structure. Micallef is the ideal host for such a show in Australia, able to dive between sketches with fictional characters – some loosely based on real people – and his unique take on breaking news stories. It also gives him multiple opportunities to take shots at his favourite pet peeves, in this case Kevin Rudd, John Howard and the Australian immigration policy, all of which are poked at on an episodic basis.

I first came to know of Shaun Micallef via the Paramount Comedy Channel. They would show Drop the Dead Donkey, which I loved, every weeknight, and followed it up with the Kenny Everett show, which I grew to adore. Eventually, it ran out of Everett episodes to show, while still having DTDD episodes. So they put The Micallef Programme on in Kenny’s place. Disappointment was quickly dispelled by actually watching five minutes of his show. And five minutes of his show was all that was needed to cement it in my mind as must watch TV.

Micallef is, primarily, a cruel comic. His jokes will take shots at characters he has created, usually played by his band of fellow comics playing a variety of roles. However, he is never beyond being the butt of the jokes. A Micallef sketch or comedy routine will always wind up with him looking like a complete idiot if the bigger laugh can come from that. I find that reassuring in a comic, it shows they have a good grounding of reality around them and can happily take as well as give.

The humour can be quite absurdist. A pro-smoking Watchdog sketch, which denounces government figures on smoking casualties, before announcing, “We have found you can half the number of smoking deaths in Australia if you divide it by two.” Or “an oil tanker containing aromatherapy oils exploded off the coast of Melbourne this afternoon, causing widespread calm and a sense of well being.” It’s not humour to everyone’s taste, I admit. Hell, the comic himself admits he is an “acquired taste”. The closest I can compare to is the “Mining Exam” school of Peter Cook. 

“If you have any information, any information at all, please contact me as I'm writing an encyclopaedia.”

His roots in the great British absurdist tradition are open for all to see. During the three years of the Micallef Program(me), his on-air relationship with ABC, his television employers, often mirrored Kenny Everett’s on screen digs at the BBC/ITV/Radio Luxembourg/whoever was employing him that week. Like naming his recent show Mad as Hell, it’s not an incidental add on to the show, but adds to the layer of his comedy output: there’s a great intertextuality to it, for those aware of the great comedy traditions to pick on and have a smile over. The Micallef Program(me) only lasted three seasons, despite being an audience grabber, as the man has never liked to stick to one project too long. A brave move in itself, to end a show on which he was given 100% creative freedom before it grew stale. (Especially since his replacement show was cancelled soon after being renewed for twenty episodes!) Not that he has ever been out of work long since. Nevertheless, that tends to sum up Micallef, he is in every sense the anti-celebrity, who continuously puts himself down as a “continuity man” and who shuns the spotlight for an ego, at the contrast of the egotistical hosts he portrays on screen.

“Remember, a dog is not just for Christmas. It can also be for a birthday. In fact, you can eat them all year round.”

His comedic acting is a master class of comic timing, belittling his own small opinion of his talents in that department. The timing of his retorts to guests in studio sketches is sublime.

And oh the sketches.

“’A man who could never say no to a drink’ was how I once described Owen Tully to a prospective employer. He’d be a bit embarrassed to hear me say this, but he was under suspicion for a number of robberies in the area. Never charged, only questioned. He said I could have his chair.” A Micallef character eulogising his late friend.

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Anyone sitting there?”

“Hah. You’ve got no mates.”

Now that might translate badly onto the written page, but here it is performed.

The partnership between Shaun and Francis Greenslade is a joy to behold. They met (I believe) when they were both on Full Frontal, and have worked together on most of Micallef’s projects since. They have an ability to work off each other intrinsically, one being able to get the best reaction out of the other for comedic effect. Greenslade’s ease at slipping into numerous characters, the dafter the better for his ability to play them straight, allows Shaun’s host to work even better at being the adept satire of frankly far too many living talk show hosts. There is a great sketch, where in the burned remains of a house, Micallef tells Greenslade’s insurance lawyer all the things he lost (“my antique paintings over there, 15th Century Ming vase there...”) all the while insisting he’s not here for the money, he’s just glad no one was hurt. He continues to list lost items. “Over there’s where I started the fire” randomly enters his list of items. He goes to continue for a second, before seeing the Paddington Bear stare upon him and acting like a Scooby Doo villain foiled by those pesky kids. Genius.

He’s not just a man with a witty tongue like his heroes though, our Shaun. He also possesses elements of Buster Keaton that are hard to express in words. Almost aptly.

But witness the Wine Cellar sketch.

And the Drunk Room sketch.

Please do, this’ll still be here when you get back.

The moment when the husband passes the painting, only to “fix it” and then dust his hands with a satisfied smile is one of my favourite comedy moments.

“ I have been saying that I’m used to sprints and the book was more like a marathon, but I think it’s more different than that: I think writing sketches is like jogging for a bus and that writing a book is a like swimming the Channel.”

It is a great shame Micallef is not better known in this country, as he would be quite popular. He mines the great British surrealism strand quite well, and for all those who claim he is too Australian orientated in his satire for British audiences to make sense, well, Jon Stewart is very American centric, being American, yet we still lap him up.

“I’m sorry. We did the best we could.”

“But he only came here with a broken wrist.”

“Yes, well...I’m afraid there were complications.”

“What sort of complications?”

“I threw him out the window.”

Micallef’s Doctor attempts to console some parents.

His humour is strange. Sometimes it dives well over the thin line of good taste. Yet there is a quintessential brilliance at the heart of Shaun Micallef that deserves a wider audience abroad.

I link to a select few favourite sketches below:

“I want to do sketch but sketch is very hard to do now because of budgets. You go to the ABC with a sketch show and they’ll say it’s a light entertainment programme so the budget they offer is sufficient to make Spicks and Specks but it’s not sufficient really to make a sketch show.”
(Meat Boy, a new TV show for kids)

(Better Homes and Gardens)

(The Death of the Australian funeral industry) 

"If you're like me, it's possible you're a clone generated from my stolen DNA. I suggest you turn yourself in for destruction immediately."

Elena Baltacha

It seems likely we have seen the last match in the career of Elena Baltacha, so here is a moment to celebrate one of Britain’s finest, and unheralded, athletes.

Not a footballer. Not a rugby star. Not even a Judo star. But a tennis player.

To be a professional sports star in Britain is in many ways to take on the mantle of permanent criticism. Beyond the idealism of Premiership football, and in most disciplines, the most press a sports person gets is when they lose out on something, and then it’s so the press can get the knives out. This is more so in tennis, where to the mainstream press, it is Wimbledon or nothing. No matter what a tennis player does in their career, if they fail to win this specific Grand Slam (something currently done by about 5 out of 20, 000 active female tennis players, incidentally) then they are forever a failure. To deal with this, you need an incredible thick skin. To come back from a near fatal liver condition, deal with it, and wind up playing better than you did before? That takes more guts than any of the press charlatans have put together.

The daughter of USSR football ace Sergei, Elena Baltacha was born in 1983, and grow up in Scotland after being born in Kiev. She grew into tennis, and by age 18 was showing flashes of potential brilliance, having won Fed Cup matches and produced some fighting displays at Slam level. Then came disaster. Cholangitis is not an illness that rolls off the tongue, but the primary issue – inflammation of the liver causing blockage of the bile ducts – is serious enough. How serious? It can cause death within ten years in untreated cases. Even successful treatment might shorten considerably a lifespan.

No one could have forsaken her had she given up at these odds being thrown at her, but this was not to prove Elena’s style. Vast surgeries put her out of action for the majority of 2003.

“ if someone had told me that I would end up playing people like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, competing at all the grand slams and on the WTA Tour, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’d be feeling so exhausted all time time in the months leading up to the diagnosis and it was hard to imagine ever being fit to play again.”

Baltacha returned to tennis, and competed at a high level in spite of her ills for the next eight years. One of the first women in some time from Britain to qualify for all four Grand Slams, she was left holding the flag for British womens tennis in the barren years before the recent appearance of Heather Watson, Jan Konta and Laura Robson to take the pressure off, as well as the later career resurgence of Anne Keothavong. She was never going to be winning any Slams – though her performances were often exemplary, especially her two third rounds of the Australian Open, in 2005 and 2010.

But let’s put this into perspective. This girl needs to take ten pills a day to prevent her condition becoming fatal. Yet she’s been a consistent top 100 player for vast quantities of the last five years. That takes an effort and a heart, which is beyond my comprehension.

It does bring up issues. See the controversy stirred up by certain papers and commentators over her pulling out of the New Dehli Commonwealth games in 2010, under doctors advice about the environment being detrimental to her condition.

Elena Baltacha is now patron of the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation.

So bloody brilliant? I’d certainly say so.

Next time, we met a football manager never short of a witty retort, yet with a heart of gold, and a woman who managed to win respect and fight for female equality in that most male of environments: pro-wrestling.

I can't wait to find out who, and I'm writing these...

Monday, 6 August 2012

Only A Joke?

Trigger warning - rape

This week I was watching RAW. Yes, I watch pro-wrestling, it's my Corrie, Emmerdale or Eastenders. Anyhow, I was watching RAW, and in the midst of a rather middling episode, one of the performers, Abraham Washington, on a live microphone, said:

"[Wrestler] is like Kobe Bryant in a Colorado hotel room: unstoppable."

Hohohohoho no.

WWE apologised for the incident, but the performer appears to have got by without much worries, he still had his live mic section on the next show. It was, after all, only a joke.


I remember a while ago, an anonymous relative of mine randomly made a rape joke in the middle of conversation. They were a bit confused as to why I took it so badly.

A while after, one of my uni pals made a similar joke but more specific about someone in general. I responded by telling him he'd crossed the line, getting up and storming out of the pub. OTT? Perhaps a little, but it got the point across. He apologised next time I saw him, and in the years of hanging out after, never made a single similar joke in my presence, at least.

(Before I step forward, I feel the need to protect someone’s good name here. As the only one of my male uni pals, who has a public platform, as being one, I assure everyone this wasn't Shim. He in fact is the only guy I know who has less tolerance for such things.)

The point, neither of the two joke tellers would have, as far as I know, ever hurt a woman in their lives, and would have been genuinely sickened at the thought. Yet they told rape jokes without even thinking.

Now a defence of such jokes that has come out recently is that it is good to laugh about traumatic things. Hence 'The Producers'. Now, I'll accept humour as the best defence and medicine, true, but I'd say there's a slight difference, ever so slight, between Joan Rivers making jokes about her life as a form of therapy and some male comedian who thinks he's the next Frankie Boyle cracking a joke about the crying lass to "lighten the mood".

I admit with my cards on the table that I have personally been affected by the crime, on account of two friends that I know of at least. That's all I need mention. However, it doesn't change my views, as I'd have had them anyway.

I've been trying to write a story about the aftermaths of a rape case for the best part of seven years. Trying being the operative word. (It incidentally would show no actual rape scene, only the effect in months to come. As friend of, I know that bit. In addition, as friend of, you carry the personal shame longer than the bloody rapist, forever thinking of how you should have stopped it happening, regardless of distance, age at the time and in one case, not having even known the person then.) It's just too sickening a topic to write about, even in the abstract.

As sickening was the repeated treatment my fellow writer, Lorrie, has received over the past month and more, for the harrowing crime of defending rape victims against Twitter idiots. I even get my first hate Tweet in defending her, because bloody hell, I'm not going to sit back and watch that. (Though Lorrie seems far more adept at tackling these people than I am, but that's beside the point -she shouldn't have to!)

It’s sort of amusing. As a writer, I have commented on: Palestine/Israel, student activism, the Old Firm, anti-racism, and other lightening rods for replies, yet the first hate mail in any form was due to defending a rape victim. Actually, that's quite tragic.

Besides, Lorrie and others seem to be attacked for the crime of being feminist. There's nothing wrong with that. (The only feminists I wouldn't get on with are the ones in that BBC documentary who abandoned their children and who claimed all women should be lesbians as "sexuality is a choice, not something you are born with." And you know what? I've never met anyone like that, just as I've never met someone on ESA who wasn't a genuine claimant, and I have never met an asylum seeker who wasn't a genuine case. If there is a minority, then I am sorry for them, but it shouldn't get in the way of the vast majority of innocent folk.)

One night, several years ago, I was meeting pals to go to a nightclub. Outside the pub we were meeting, a girl (about 20 at the most, though I fear she was a damn sight younger) was falling about the place. Smelt of booze, yes, but not that much, which made me a bit worried she'd had a fit or something. The bouncers were being utterly hopeless. She got to her feet and leaned on me for support, and tried to engage in chitchat. (I might have been being chatted up, I'm not very sure about these things, she did suggest going for a drink, I was too worried she was going to collapse again.) Anyhow, she decided she couldn't get back into the pub, so started walking down the street. And fell over. At which point my friends came along - female ones - and they were desperate to leave the scene immediately. And I did start to walk away, but the street was quite busy, and I noticed no one was trying to help this woman. So I came back, and helped her up. She was so out of it she was slurring badly. There was a taxi rank across the street and next to the train station so, with my friends grumbling about it, I led her to the taxis. Once inside one, she kind of knew where her mum lived (but not where she lived) so I paid the taxi driver £30 in advance and he drove her to her mum.

It didn't even occur to me that she might have been drugged until I spoke to Shim about it a few days later.

Now, I know now that's not how you are meant to deal with such things. You should phone the cops, or take the person to the hospital or something like that. I was 18, and hadn't a clue what to do. I was waiting for one of the grownups to do something, anything, and none of them did. And throughout it all, I was increasingly worried as I noticed that no one, not the bouncers, not my friends, not the many hundred people who passed us, seemed to give a care. Someone else's problem. Someone more predatory than me would have had a field day. Which disturbed intensely, and more than anything is the reason I can recall the entire scene very well today when I cannot remember what I had for breakfast.

Now a writer, a female writer, of some repute who I will again keep anonymous would have labelled this "heroic", because "men who don't rape are heroic". This is bollocks to me. Reminds me of that Chris Rock bit. "I look after my kids...YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO!"

Nevertheless, her point was that rape is prevalent in society that by her thinking those who didn't even consider it were abnormal. Or so it seemed.

This is why I draw the line. Humour is subjective, yes, but there's no humour in something so bloody widespread.

Now, someone who might think I am taking things too seriously, I would point in the direction of Sarah Lauren Scott's comments on the matter, as they chime with mine, and really gave me the impetus to write this.

So I will stand up if I see someone make one on my Twitter feed. Or someone makes such a joke in the pub, or train, or elsewhere in my presence. And I do hope the WWE make an explanatory apology for their incident, though I don't hold my breath.

It's very simple, to me.

The more people who DO come out and say "That is not acceptable", the more public the idea of it being unacceptable is, the more we can knuckle down and deal with the crime itself and stop being waylaid by apologists.

Because covering up a joke with "it’s only a joke" when the stats suggest you have a damn good chance of making the joke in front of a victim is unacceptable.

EDIT - Shortly after this was published, WWE released the wrestler in question from his contract.