Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 30 April 2023

Thrown to the wolves

A minor but disturbing news story last week concerned a teacher in an all-girls school compelled by the management to apologise to a class of eleven-year-olds for addressing them collectively  as ‘girls’.

The story was picked up at the time by JuliaM, who drew attention to the lunchtime protest which followed the teacher’s refusal to comply with the pupils’ demand that she use the preferred pronouns of one of their number - a grievance, one suspects, which had sprung, fully-formed, into existence after the previous week’s assembly on gender presented by the school’s ‘equality and diversity prefects’.

The desire to impress one’s peers or a visiting speaker is an unpredictable force which often finds expression after ‘issue-based’ assemblies; I’ve seen the most unlikely pupils vying with each other to produce highly dubious first-hand descriptions of bullying, eating disorders or mental health issues in the led discussions which often follow and I suspect the aftermath of a presentation on gender would be no exception.

Something about this attention-seeking scenario and the involvement of older girls rang a bell so, following a hunch while writing a comment at Julia’s place, I rummaged around in the internet and, almost immediately, came up with this sample student essay on Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, based on the Salem witch trials:

 Although Abigail Williams is typically thought of as the antagonist of The Crucible, she is in fact a victim as much as any other tragic character in the play. The true antagonist of the play is the town of Salem itself, because of the judgemental and self-concerned people, and its oppressive views. (Sample essay from 123helpme)

This is not not an isolated example; there is a wealth of material out there drawing on the violent death of her parents and her affair with an older man to portray her as a sympathetic character driven by trauma and exploitation to rebel against the censorious townsfolk using the limited weapons at her disposal (conveniently ignoring the fact that she describes the fate of her parents while coercing the younger girls to support her machinations and that the whole plot arises from her desire to harm the wife of her former lover).

To portray Abigail as a victim is to upset the whole balance of the play, effectively reducing Miller’s explicit allegory for the McCarthyite persecution of alleged Communists in 1950s America to a seventeenth century version of the film ‘Mean Girls’ (2004), in which the actions of the accusers, while clearly reprehensible, can be understood and potentially condoned (or even applauded; it’s worth bearing in mind that, after the release of ‘Mean Girls’, a teen comedy drama based on a factual study of bullying and cliques in US high schools, schoolgirls in uniform-free countries began consciously copying the sartorial codes of the eponymous group).

While it would be reassuring to think that this paradigm shift is confined to unqualified students rather than academia and is mainly the result of immature teenagers identifying with and romanticising the character, in an age where the internet gives a spurious authority to anything put online it’s easy to imagine it taking hold in a wider context. More disturbingly, the growing cult of the victim makes it an increasingly attractive interpretation to those for whom participating in online witch hunts is becoming an acceptable way to approach any difference of opinion, thanks to social media.

It’s only a few weeks since I used the Crucible analogy* to describe young employees exerting undue influence over publishing companies or cultural institutions fearful of damaging social media campaigns over issues of race or gender; the experience of the unfortunate teacher at the hands of a group of unscrupulous, entitled (and ill-mannered) eleven-year-olds (and her bosses, who all seem to have gone down with a bad case of Witchfinder-General’s Knee) over gender identity suggests that the contagion is spreading into ever-younger cohorts.

Certainly the school management who offered their employee up in sacrifice on the altar of political correctness would be well advised to do a little research into both the real-life Salem witch trials and the actions of Mao’s Red Guard, a movement which combined the ruthless solipsism of adolescence with fanatical loyalty to an inflexible ideology. Now even their youngest pupils know how much power they can exert, who knows which members of staff could be next in line for denunciation? 


Sunday 23 April 2023

Negative Adaptations

As Radio 4 becomes ever more annoying and 4extra’s continuity announcers not much better, I’ve been listening to archive radio plays and serials on BBC Sounds. By giving us access to these older productions, the BBC is, presumably unintentionally, providing a clear demonstration of how much better they are than the majority of what we are being given today.

For a start, in the older productions, the lines are generally delivered more clearly; the actors, by and large, have better diction and vocal technique and the background noise or sound effects, having been used to establish the location, are muted or reduced while they speak. There is less reliance on gimmickry too; while random repetition, self-narration, choral speaking and other over-theatrical and experimental techniques will get you high grades in GCSE Drama or favourable reviews in the Guardian, they can become intrusive in most radio drama settings, particularly in adaptations of the classics and older texts.

Above all, the older dramatisations are relatively free from the BBC’s now seemingly endless attempts to shoehorn propaganda into everything. This is annoying at the best of times but feels like a violation when a much-loved favourite falls victim. I seldom go so far as to swear at the radio but the Radio 4 dramatisation of ‘The Cruel Sea’ a few years ago elicited one such outburst when a passage in Monsarrat’s book condemning the vulgar ‘Spivs and Flash Harrys’ profiteering from petrol brought in by oil tanker at the cost of human lives was radically altered to a snide complaint about ‘fat cats and businessmen’ using the hard-won petrol to ‘drive their Jaguars’ to golf clubs, race meetings and pheasant shoots. In the same way, the few scenes of ‘The Kraken Wakes’ which I caught by chance on a car journey were so heavily larded with pious references to climate change that I switched it off again in disgust.

Most of the manipulation is less overt than this, of course, but it is only when you listen to adaptations from decades ago that you realise how frequent it is in today’s output: like the proverbial boiling frogs, we have been subjected to the intrusion of modernising revision and political or environmental orthodoxy in creeping increments to the point that we simply don’t realise how much of it is going on or even notice it unless some particularly egregious example crops up. The same thing has been happening in television; compare the excellent - and generally faithful - 1980s adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Barchester Towers’ with today’s ‘Great Expectations’, complete with added explicit drug-taking and contrived references to the slave trade.

A. A. Milne, when he turned ‘The Wind in the Willows’ into ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, compared adapting a well-loved classic to leaving fingerprints in someone else’s bread and butter and recommended as light a touch as possible; by contrast, the BBC is not merely manhandling our cultural sustenance but dropping the plate on the floor and treading it into the carpet with muddy boots, while never missing an opportunity to preach at us through the medium of entertainment and doubtless enjoying a collective sense of righteous self-satisfaction that all of this is is entirely for our own good. 

As an antidote, I suggest the three-part serial which prompted this post, an adaptation of James Hilton’s 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’, recorded in 1981 with Derek Jacobi in the lead role; the plot is followed faithfully, it is free of gimmicks and you can hear every word. More importantly, despite being partially set in British India and other far-flung parts of the empire, it is mercifully free from the kind of anachronistic multiculturalism and condemnation of the Raj that the BBC would doubtless see fit to inject were it being made today. If you know the book and it interests you, I recommend you listen while you can, before the Corporation’s Thought Police spot this dangerously subversive recording and withdraw it from public access.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Alas, poor Yorvik!

I knew it, Horatio. Or, in its modern guise, I thought I did; the Minster, the Shambles, the Japanese prints in the Museum and the gardens next door, a stroll along the river Ouse and afternoon tea at Betty’s (or, if the queue is too long, the quirky little tea shop in College Street, all chintz bunting and mis-matched antique china). However, as a recent weekend trip has shown, that’s not all there is to it these days.

The first inkling that things had changed since we were regular visitors was a peculiar noise as we walked into the city centre for dinner, a discordant far-off howling which gradually resolved itself into - arguably - ‘Wonderwall’ being painfully mangled in a variety of different keys and with a certain valiant disregard for tempo. The culprits turned out to be a busker (actually quite good) and a large crowd of mini-skirted, over-painted and clearly very drunk women, which came as something of a surprise, given that it was not yet 7pm.

As we drew nearer, more women appeared round corners or out of the numerous bars lining the street, waving their arms enthusiastically in the air as they joined in and bawled an approximation of the lyrics at parties approaching from the opposite direction. Their various accoutrements - matching T-shirts or sashes (necessary, perhaps, to stop them drunkenly wandering off with the wrong herd), light-up deely-boppers and bridal veils - confirmed our suspicions that we had somehow ended up in what amounted to a hen party-themed circle of Hell.

Thanks to its small size, car-free streets and easy accessibility by rail, York has apparently drawn the very short straw of becoming one of Britain’s most popular hen party venues. Numerous companies compete to promote it as a destination, offering organised activities ranging from the sweetly innocuous (dance, cookery and chocolate-making classes) via wine-tastings, river cruises and bar crawls to the downright prurient and sniggeringly salacious. Among the latter is a male life-drawing class, marketed - or pandered - with a queasy ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’ spiel which, at a stroke, degrades centuries of classical art to cheap titillation in a spectacularly apt metaphor for our times.

From our window table in a quiet restaurant, we could see more groups making their way from the station, helium balloons and headdresses bobbing above the crowd, their unsteady progress suggesting that the merry-making had already started in earnest on the train - either that or their high heels were causing them trouble on the cobblestoned street. The make-up colour of choice appeared to be day-glo orange, accessorised with over-sized lip fillers which, combined with some bold sartorial choices, gave the wandering parties more than a passing resemblance to shoals of brightly-coloured tropical fish prowling the nooks and crannies of a coral reef.

By the time we finished our meal, the busker was still gamely plying his trade - Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ this time - but his audience, while still caterwauling along, were now looking distinctly the worse for wear; a number of them were leaning for support on nearby buildings and bollards or, less successfully, their companions, and several more had collapsed onto the damp pavement, while a couple were quietly sobbing in the gutter, apparently overcome by emotion (or, more probably, a surfeit of Prosecco cocktails). It was with a palpable sense of relief that we left the city centre, pausing briefly to assist an unwisely stiletto-shod young woman who had fallen over on a busy crossing and was struggling to right herself unaided in the face of oncoming traffic.

I suppose the number of marauding hen parties suggests that marriage is not as uncommon or outmoded as some social commentators would have us believe - unless, of course, young women have decided to dispense with the tedious marriage bit and are simply signing up for an evening of Bacchanalian excess for the fun of it (which would, I suppose, be nothing new - although, in the ancient world, there was usually a mitigating religious dimension to the revelry). It is sad, however, to see what is otherwise a remarkably agreeable and attractive historic city being so abused and it must be truly terrible for the local residents who bear the brunt of the late-night noise, crowded streets and antisocial behaviour on a weekly basis.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

“Do you talk more when it’s dry?”

Fans of John Wyndham may recognise this quote from ‘The Day of the Triffids’. One summer evening in the days before the disaster, the narrator and a colleague at the triffid farm where he works are listening to the rattling noise made by the thousands of tethered plants in a nearby field. The colleague, a plant expert, suggests that the noise, rather than a random effect of the weather as Mason thinks, may actually be a form of communication. Although Mason is initially sceptical, later events cause him to re-evaluate the theory.

I was reminded of this scene by the news, a couple of weeks ago, that scientists have recorded hypersonic ‘clicks’ given off by plants under stress and are putting forward the theory that these noises can convey information about the condition of the plant. While the researchers concentrated on dehydrated tomato plants, there is also footage of a rather disgruntled-looking cactus wired for sound and emitting a definite clicking or popping noise.

This is not the only triffid analogy in the news; nearly ten years ago, I quoted from the book in response to a story about plants being engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids hitherto found only in fish oils and animal products using genes from marine algae (technically neither plant nor animal). Since then, successful trials have led to the proposed feeding of the new oils to farmed fish and poultry and to the beginning of the process to approve them for for mass production for human consumption.

In Wyndham’s 1951 novel, which is starting to look alarmingly prescient, the origin of the triffids lies in the manipulation of plant DNA to produce a vegetable oil which far outperforms the best fish oils. When specimens appear worldwide, a large industry quickly springs up to exploit the benefits of this new - if somewhat problematic - crop; it is this abundance of lethal triffids on Home Counties farmland which renders the United Kingdom particularly vulnerable to the subsequent global disaster, one in which the triffids’ ability to communicate, albeit at a basic level, plays a significant role.

Bearing this in mind, it is, perhaps, a little unsettling to read that there is currently an application in place to grow GM Camelina Sativa plants which have been engineered to produce this new fish oil substitute on open-air agricultural stations in Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?

As an aside, 1951 was something of a vintage year for novels, giving us not only the triffids but also ‘Foundation’, ‘The Cruel Sea’, ‘The Daughter of Time’, ‘Nightrunners of Bengal’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and many others.

Saturday 8 April 2023

“Go and play in the traffic!”

The long tradition of April Fool news stories in mainstream outlets seems to be in abeyance thanks to the internet - in any case, there are now so many odd and surreal news items out there that the odd spaghetti tree would probably slip through unnoticed (I rather like the conspiracy theorists’ explanation that switching on the Large Hadron Collider precipitated us into a parallel and comparatively insane universe).

This one had my antennae twitching but, as far as I can see, it first appeared six days after the crucial date:

Giant coloured spots appeared on Norman Way in Colchester, with locals told that the “temporary street art” was intended to encourage children to walk or cycle to the nearby school.

Quite apart from aesthetic considerations - the colour combination is frankly nauseating - and the distraction for drivers, decorating the road surface with the same brightly-coloured designs used widely in school playgrounds suggests that the designers have little or no practical knowledge of child behaviour.

The spots are part of a Healthy School Streets initiative on the part of the Council - savour those capital letters: a sure sign there’s a PR company or quango involved somewhere - designed to reduce and control traffic around schools. It’s the sort of project guaranteed to appeal to high-ups who want to be seen to Make a Difference and just the sort of idea likely to be swapped around at conferences (Head Teachers are prone to the same kind of thing, making schools doubly 

The timing is interesting, to say the least; ‘temporary’, yet right at the start of the Easter holidays - and a month or so before the local elections. The overall impression is that the peasants should shut up and not interfere when their betters decide to act for their good:
A spokeswoman for Essex Council [...] said residents were consulted on the idea. They said 74% agreed with the principle of setting up School Streets in Colchester.

Doubtless this survey was carried out with the help of the usual leading questions - ‘Do you agree with our plan or would you prefer to see more horrible road accidents involving children? - and the residents agreed in principle without being given any clear indication of the form the measures would take. Certainly one local Councillor, who memorably described the results as ‘Teletubby land’ says she was not shown the design in advance.

For me, though, the oddest aspect is the stated aim of ‘encouraging children to walk or cycle to school’. For one thing, the design is limited to a small area and youngsters are hardly likely to find a few coloured spots on the road at their destination sufficient incentive to warrant walking all the way and, more to the point, surely deciding the means of getting to school is up to their parents, at least until they are of an age to find the brightly-coloured circles embarrassingly infantile and patronising.

If I am wrong, and it is really children who are deciding whether to walk or drive to school at an early age, the results could be interesting; if parents have abdicated responsibility to that extent, will they have the discipline or authority to prevent their infant offspring from succumbing to the lure of the ‘attractive’ street art and jumping into the road?

Saturday 1 April 2023

Pleading the Belly

Back in the days of the death penalty, our forebears recognised that executing a pregnant woman raised a certain moral difficulty. The solution they arrived at was allowing the convicted criminal to ‘plead her belly’; a woman sentenced to death but proving upon examination to be carrying a child could have that sentence deferred until after she had given birth.

In practice, whether through merciful reconsideration or administrative cock-up, records show that these women often escaped execution altogether and ended up committed to prison or transportation instead or even being pardoned, providing a powerful incentive for any woman detained on suspicion of a capital crime to get herself knocked up as soon as possible. (This presented certain practical difficulties in all-female prisons but the problem was not insurmountable; ‘The Beggars’ Opera’, which inspired this blog, features a Newgate servant whose side hustle is (pro)creating the means for female criminals to escape the hangman’s noose).

There was an interesting throwback to pleading the belly this week thanks to lawyers for one of two women - or ‘thug mothers’ as the Mail memorably put it - who pleaded guilty this week to affray. It’s certainly not a pretty picture:

...they turned up at their victim's home at 6.30am and pelted her with eggs. Wright, 29, stamped on the victim's legs, while Jones, 33, kneed her in the head and tried to pour vinegar in her eyes.

The guilty plea didn’t leave much for counsel to do but one advocate, at least, did have a go at justifying his fee:

Mr Brody, mitigating for Jones, said his client is heavily pregnant. He added: 'The defence counsel together believes this doesn't reach the custody threshold. Ms Jones is pregnant, she cannot go to prison. 

I’m not an expert, but a quick Google suggests that ‘cannot’ is doing quite a lot of heavy lifting here. In fact, there appears to be no statutory requirement for the judge to take pregnancy into account when sentencing and there are several mother and baby units in UK prisons, making it unclear exactly why Mr Brody would make such an unequivocal (and technically incorrect) statement.

The judge confirmed that the custody threshold had not been met and, in the absence of previous convictions, handed down community and restraining orders, telling them to ‘count themselves lucky’ - something of an understatement, given the premeditation implied by a 6.30am house call furnished with a bottle of vinegar and a box of eggs.

Since the offence took place in 2020 and the women have been aware since the preliminary hearings in 2021 that they would be standing trial in Crown Court, it raises some interesting questions about this suspiciously opportune pregnancy - and, however humane their intentions, about the possible consequences of success for the current campaigns to prevent pregnant women being sent to jail at all.