Strictly in defence of Jeremy Vine

come dancingAbout ten years ago, the BBC made what could now be described as a brave and inspired move introducing Strictly Come Dancing to the UK.

Replicated across the world, most famously as Dancing with the stars in the US, all were based on Come Dancing which ran on and off in the UK from 1949 to the late 1990’s.

The original was noted for its amateur dancers and their tendency to sew on sequins to any possible item of clothing. The participants were highly skilled and experienced dancers albeit rather plastique at times. By the 1980’s it had a rather stayed, conservative and unexciting reputation which consigned it to a dwindling specialist audience until it was finally scrapped by the BBC in 1998.

After a brief absence from our screens, a re-vamped version Strictly Come Dancing was introduced in 2004 becoming the must-see programme of that and subsequent autumn season viewing.

I should state my position at a fairly early stage; I was a fan of the early series but that interest has gradually waned over

Strictly Come Dancing

      A BBC hit – Strictly Come Dancing

the past few years to such a point that I had not followed or watched the 2015 series. The reasons for this are varied. It feels as though just about every ‘celebrity’ has been put thought the strictly ‘journey’. The inevitable churn of professional dancers means some favoured cast members have left and the focus of the show seems  to have shifted in my view – in a way that made it less attractive.

So what was it that made me catch up with the series (or at least its highlights) this year?  The answer is simple, a twitter message sent to one of the participants, BBC journalist Jeremy Vine,

One of the reasons I became jaded with the series in recent years was the sense that some of the participants were using the series as a means of self-promotion. Clearly as ‘celebrities’ this will always be a consideration, but it appeared to have become the driving factor in some cases. Given that, it was perhaps no surprise to read the message on Mr Vine’s website.

messageOne contributor called Martin posted a message stating ” Def time for Bovine to leave the show. Great for a laugh but not a natural dancer. Sorry m8 but time for you to MOVE ON”

Firstly, I have no issue with Martin or his right to make such a comment – I just strongly disagree with it. In fact, I felt so strongly about it that I reviewed highlights of the series so far to see what could have led to these comments. After all, he isn’t the first contestant to be less naturally talented than his fellow competitors.

What I saw (and I appreciate others may see something different) was a rather normal man enjoying to learn to dance and doing his best to progress in sort of dance competition. It may be true to say that Jeremy Vine isn’t as natural a dancer  as some others in the series this year. However, I have to ask the question – so what ?

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a journalist the response to this call for him to leave the show also came via social media. Then again to quote Phineas T. Barnum “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

In his response, Mr Vine explains how he doesn’t want to set a bad example to his daughters and reinforces the fact that he’s trying to do his best and improve as the weeks pass. For me setting a good example is certainly valid but ultimately a very personal matter.

Julian Clary in 2013

Julian Clary in 2013

How sad it would be if we could only participate in things where we had natural talent. For me Jeremy Vine is giving of his best – whether that’s as good as others isn’t the point. He certainly isn’t the first to suffer from this phenomena, Julian Clary seemed to me to suffer some of the same in 2013.

In fact, the rise of personality and ‘entertainment value’ over good old fashioned hard work and effort is one of the reasons I stopped following the series in mid 2014.

I may mark both Julian Clary and Jeremy Vine lower than others in terms of technical capability, but very few put in more work rate than either and I thought (perhaps mistakenly) the show was also about learning a new skill. What a great role model both men have been to men of a certain age to take on new challenges and conquer them. More power to your elbow Jeremy.

Without singling out any previous competitors it is clear that Vine is taking things seriously – or more accurately not playing the routine for mere impact or comedic value.  When competitors start to be airlifted in to the start of their routines or using stunts and gimmicks they lose so much in my eyes. Whilst it’s true there must be an entertainment value, for me it shouldn’t overwhelm the dance element. It would have been easy to venture into this space but to his credit Jeremy Vine and his coach have consistently resisted this.

MostPopularUltimately, one of my strongest reservations about the most recent series is the tendency for all things to come down to a popularity contest  among the competitors.

Any one of these perceived negatives might be a reason to stop participating (or not start in the first place) in the series. However, just because you’re not seen as the world’s best at anything doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason to stop.

I doubt I will be restarting the series for the reasons already  stated, but I really hope those taking part don’t believe the hype – after all the audience is just that. Enjoy the skills you’re learning and don’t worry too much about the views of the armchair waltzers.

Are we all going the way of the knocker-uppers?

As someone who has spent some time researching my family history, I remember the surprise when I found a distant relative of mine had been a dog-whipper in the mid 1700’s.

The Dog Whipper

The Dog Whipper

As an avid dog lover this was something of a horrific finding. In fact, after a little research although not wonderful, I found that this late in century there was no longer any whipping involved. In fact, this job was a type of church-warden who’s role was to chase off (or in extremis remove) dogs during church services.

Historically, it had not been uncommon for dogs to accompany their owners to church, often with interesting consequences. The preferred tools of the trade were actually a large pair of wooden tongs often padded with leather pads  or netting with which to remove the errant hounds. The dog whippers had disappeared shortly afterwards as it became socially unacceptable to take dogs into churches.

Searching through census returns of the last hundred years it started to become something of a side interest when I found a particularly interesting occupation.

lamplighter

                Lamplighter

The most likely reason for the disappearance of occupations before the industrial revolution was a change in social convention. However, after the industrial revolution the introduction of technology takes over and makes roles which were once considered indispensable redundant.

One of the more common roles was the lamplighter who wandered the streets of 19th century towns lighting and extinguishing the gas lamps of the time. It was seen as one of the more secure semi-skilled jobs of the time – after all what could replace gas lights. When automated town gas and early electric lighting emerged, this didn’t stop the occupation from disappearing in little over 10 years.

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

A Victorian Knocker-Upper

This then brings us to the deliciously named knocker-uppers who were key to the maintenance of an effective workforce until well into the Victorian era.

Shared houses held several families, clocks and watches cost the equivalent of several weeks wages and those late for work were simply replaced by willing replacements queuing for work at factory offices. Given that, for our Victorian forebears, having a reliable timepiece could provide one of the most lucrative if antisocial jobs of the time.

Charging each household a weekly fee of between a farthing and sixpence, the household could ensure that they would be woken (or knocked) up in time for them to start work. Some contemporary authors indicate that the knocker-upper was often paid second only to the landlord. Without turning up on time the likelihood of the workhouse or penury increased beyond measure. This role continued to be vital until the introduction of factory clocks and systems such as steam whistles indicating the start of the working day. However, the demise of this job is perhaps the most sudden with the role disappearing entirely within a period of three to five years.

Fleet Street Typesetters

Fleet Street Typesetters

Of course, those with skilled occupations have managed to fight off the rise of technology for longer. The dexterity, attention to detail speed and ability to work in reversed text had made the typesetter a skilled occupation from Tudor times until well into the 1980’s.

However, this has changed with the growth of computerised technology, mobile working and the introduction of laser and thermal printing.  These developments have seen the typesetter consigned to the list of historic occupations. It was perhaps the earliest example of technology moving into and replacing skilled workers.

Despite these advances, the rise of technology was typically limited to replacement technologies or the introduction of computer processing making many administrative roles redundant. Until recent years, it was more uncommon to see more complex functions replaced. That may soon change with a new range of robotics making new inroads into areas previously very much the domain of a human workforce.

In this Sept. 2, 2015, photo, a cow voluntarily gets milked by a robot at Lambert Farm in Graniteville, Vt. With trouble finding reliable labor and technology more readable available, some family dairy farms from the Northeast to the Midwest are turning to robots to milk cows to stay competitive. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Now, robots are making significant inroads into the workplace, again following the same pattern with less skilled work. Farmhands, milkers, stockmen and cattle herders are being replaced across the United States and Europe.

Cattle no longer graze in fields with scheduled milking times but instead attend a robotic milking parlour when they want food. On arrival a robotic milking arm identifies the specific cow, scans the udder to ensure the optimum milking technique for the particular animal. It then applies a milking cup and orders food for the cow to be dispensed.

Meanwhile a second robot monitors the feed ensuring waste is reduced by sweeping feed back towards the cattle and dispensing food only to the bays where cattle are waiting. Whilst farmers report up to 30% increase in yield these advances have been far from universally popular. Concerns over the welfare of grazing animals being permanently ‘housed’ and significant reductions in workforce make this an innovation feared by many. The parlour can replace a team of 5-6 herdsmen with a single ipod or tablet control.

amazonWith increasing amounts of retail transactions completed online we have already seen retail jobs reducing as large warehouses servicing internet orders increasingly take their place.

Even here, human interaction is becoming entirely optional. The new Amazon warehousing systems have replaced significant numbers of fork lift drivers, warehouse workers, packers and dispatchers. Automated pallet, storage and picking robots ensure that goods are picked within seconds of an order having been placed. It even has hidden impacts such as the fact that fewer safety/health and safety officers are required as the warehouse spaces have effectively become human free zones reducing the opportunity for injury significantly.

robot2Now, using similar technology, the robots are starting to breach the semi-skilled and skilled environments. Hospitals are now reducing the number of pharmacists as medicine storage, replenishment, distribution and delivery are run via a fully robotic pharmacy.

Two new build  hospitals in the United Kingdom also have an underground level with robotic porters. Guided beds are integrated with the door and lift controls and the underground level allows access across the entire hospital site.

The question for most of us remains, how liable is my job or occupation to be overtaken by automation. Of course in the past this would have been something a consultant or business analyst may have helped you assess. Now, the groundwork has been done and published on the web. (Another role bites the dust).

In recent years the questions being asked were around what we would do with all the spare time automation would give us. Now, it seems to me that we are more likely to be asking what on earth will people still be employed to do? Other than those selling or servicing robotic workforces, there is also the question of how we will earn money to buy whatever is being mechanically produced, sold and distributed. It’s a shame robots don’t need knocker-uppers !

Does Germany still have a ‘special responsibility’?

This last weekend saw my fourth visit to Berlin over the past two years. Although I had previously been to the city a couple of times pre-unification, these had been more ‘passing through with work’. It has only been over the last four visits that I have really come to like the city in a similar way to my existing love of Paris.

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

However, it is certainly my view that Berlin has changed quite noticeably in those visits. This weekend, I became aware of a strong and growing social resentment. At the risk of falling into a Fawlty Towers cliché, this is, in my view related to Germany’s psyche and specifically its continued sensitivities about its wartime history.

If you visit Berlin, the city carries these scars quite obviously. The Jewish memorial is justifiably prominent, deeply moving and thought provoking. However, arguably, it has become the singular physical representation of the nations consciousness. There is an emotional and sometimes a physical blanking out of the war years. The equally striking and emotionally charged Russian war memorial is comparatively unknown.

Berlin2If you are lucky enough to visit the revamped 1930’s Olympic stadium you will notice the almost Egyptian chiselling of historic symbols from the fabric of the building. Hardly surprising as nobody least of all me would want to see Swastikas retained for historic integrity. However, this has served as a strong symbol reflecting the ongoing sensitivities.

Within the rebuilt German Parliament, you will read a brief summary of the war years and an explanation that this history gives Germany a ‘special responsibility’ towards minorities and victims of religious or political persecution. This can appear to a non German national who wasn’t alive during the war to be over-compensation. Nobody would equate modern Germany with the days of the Nazi regime. Few consider the German people responsible for the actions of its political ruling class at the time. I have certainly seen nothing but a progressive, friendly, open and very welcoming country. I believe the rest of the world has come to terms with the actions of 1940’s Germany – I for one would like Germany to do the same.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The current mass migrations from Syria led to a reiteration of this special responsibility with an open door policy announced for any Syrian refugees. It was notable on the day before I left that the definition of refugee in German media was becoming an issue. Should it be limited to the UN or legal definitions or more broadly move to what others would refer to as economic migrants.

I hasten to say that I have great sympathy and an natural impulse to accept genuine refugees (those with a genuine fear of loss of life/persecution). The current position with mass migrations across Europe is an appalling one, however, does that make all concerned refugees? The knee-jerk instinctive reaction from  German political leaders means these questions were simply not addressed.

German Protesters against refugees

German Protesters against refugees

This weekend, in Berlin, I was amazed at what appeared to be a vault face based on atypical political naivety.

In an amazing demonstration of surprise, Germany changed it’s approach on border controls stating it was surprised at the number of refugees arriving. Munich was reported by the German press as failing to cope with 30,000 people having arrived in 2 days. I wonder what was expected when you effectively announce an open door policy? Whether you agree with the policy or not, surely you can and should hardly be surprised when people offered a place in Germany head to Germany.

More worryingly, I detected a change in tone among the German public (at least those reported in the press and in the café society of Berlin. Demonstrators took to the streets in Freital, Germany demonstrating against the provision of accommodation being provided to refugees. It appeared this was a criticism of the unstructured nature of the governments policy.  Whilst protestors accepted refugees and those seeking asylum they strongly resisted economic migration on such a scale.

Alarmingly Rhabbi Barkhan, Director of one of Germany’s leading Jewish support charities spoke out publically about the concerns of the German Jewish community being able to accommodate and integrate upwards of 800,000 people with what they perceived to be a natural hostility towards them.

“We as Jews have compassion for the refugees… there are children from war-torn countries. But on the other hand, we’re afraid they may be terrorists. As Jews, we are supporting Israel and our people. Here, they don’t need us,”

Whether or not you agree with these concerns, many in Germany clearly believe these internal frictions could have been avoided with a little more thought and reconsidering what Germany’s special responsibility means in the current climate.

Berlin5What I noticed during my most recent visit was the increased number of people sleeping rough on the streets. Many of the budget hotels were being used to home migrants without any obvious support or assistance to integrate or even understand their surroundings.

When travelling back from an evening out in Berlin, I was amazed at the sea of bodies on either side of the river. Sheltering under boxes, blankets and plastic, these refugees whilst safer than in Syria had found a far less favourable Germany than they had anticipated.

During the day, numerous migrants were collecting discarded bottles, cans and plastics to sell in order to support themselves. A few days after announcing a welcome to all, Germany had closed it’s borders, reinforced it’s most porous borders with the military and called on the rest of Europe to accept mandated immigration quotas to help support Germany’s special responsibility. As a visitor in Berlin, it didn’t look promising at this point. Following Hungary, Austria and Serbia announcing that they were not bound by Germany’s open door policy all border controls in those countries were strengthened.

Berlin6On my last day in Berlin, the  news covered the border closures. A German couple at breakfast surprised me by saying ‘It won’t be long before they start shooting at them’. Prophetic words indeed. After landing back in the UK I remembered these words as Hungary deployed water cannon and CS spray to disperse those seeking to cross the border to Germany.

So how much has a default and instinctive belief in a special responsibility helped those attempting to cross the continent. I for one am uncertain that  it has done much to solve the underlying issues.

I hope that Germany will reconsider it’s position. Seventy years after the end of World War II the special responsibility is no longer appropriate as a default position. The impact has been much wider than Germany itself and continues to impact neighbouring states. Ironically, it may already have increased the likelihood of conflict within existing minority communities. A more controlled implementation, (which need not mean fewer people accepted) may allow the impact of a generous humanitarian policy to be more measured and less challenging for all concerned.

What price a cup of tea?

Some things have the capability to act as shorthand for a country, a kind of national image which everyone associates with a people or nationality. Often this is even the case when the object in question has very little to do with that country in terms of origin.

teaOne such example is the humble cup of tea. Few other things could immediately conjure up the British nation than it’s devotion to tea. The best estimates suggest that over 60 billion cups of tea are made each year in the United Kingdom alone.

Despite being only six major types of tea (white, yellow, green, oolong, black and post-fermented) these all come from the same species of tea bush, the difference is merely in the post picking preparation. The love affair with these steeped leaves started in the 1600’s with Portuguese traders bringing tea leaves back to Europe from China.

Indeed some people say the British love of tea stems from decisions made in Tudor times when Elizabeth I granted the East India company a charter to operate. As that company grew, it established an infrastructure which ultimately supported the British Empire in India and lands capable of growing plants smuggled out of China.

moneyWhatever the reasons, it is clear that tea is now very big business in the United Kingdom. The exact figures are hard to establish accurately, however, there is little doubt that tea production and sale in Britain is an industry generating in excess of £1 billion pound annually.

Although originally a Chinese specialist plant, the majority of the world tea production is now concentrated in the sub-continent of India. Assam and Darjeeling being the best known areas.

The Indian government recognising the importance of a stable and readily available workforce placed requirements on tea plantation owners to provide adequate homes for their workforce. A move which at the time of its introduction made the more reputable plantations attractive employment options.

tea1However, things have deteriorated over recent years with homes in many estates now being little more than shacks. Many have virtually no roofs and the original concept of a house per worker has been rapidly moved to multiple occupancy often with as many as eight families sharing one small hut.

Many of the plantation owners have also started to apply a

de-facto levy to the provision of housing. They claim these requirements provide above average living standards for their staff which means their base salaries can remain low – and by that I mean typically £1 per day.

tea2The backlog of repairs on many  of these estates means people living without running water, sanitation and even functioning toilets. Some simply have the concrete footprint remaining to indicate where former outhouses once stood. Yet despite this wages of tea workers have remained unchanged for years. This has already led to industrial unrest and even the murder of one estate owner. However, most people are simply living on existence wages so ‘rocking the boat’ by taking a stand for workers rights is simply not an option. More details of this aspect were recently reported by the BBC’s Justin Rowlat

So is there an issue with the sale of tea from these estates? Is the product over-priced or hard to sell? These conditions exist in plantations selling to Tetley, Yorkshire Tea, Twinings and Fortnum and Masons to name but a few. Hardly the cheaper end of the retail market and far from small purchasers.

tea3As an example an experienced tea worker can pick up to three bags of tea leaves during their shift for a day. Once processed these can make a pallet of tea, roughly 500 packets of loose tea such as the one shown  here.

In this example, just one of those five hundred packets within that pallet sells for £7.50. Put another way, just  one packet equates to nearly a weeks wages for the average tea picker. Someone somewhere is making a very nice living, but it certainly isn’t  those picking the leaves to provide your breakfast cuppa.

Regulation and legislation does exist in India to address these conditions. However, the simple truth is that they appear to be totally ineffective. So what are our famous name purchasers doing with their undoubted buying power to improve the situation? The answer appears to be washing their hands of the problem. It appears to be the majority view that this is an internal matter for India to resolve.

So next time you pay for your branded tea and wonder why fair trade tea might be more expensive this could well be one reason for the increased prices. However, reliance on fair trade isn’t sufficient in my view. Come on big brands, make a stand and refuse to accept working conditions that would have been more at home in the worst of the Dickensian novels. Food for thought when you next put the kettle on for you cup of English breakfast.

The vital Importance of Being Earnest (Vaudeville Theatre, London)

TIOBE1An unusual but not unique blog today with a set of thoughts based around (among other productions) a review of The Importance of being Ernest. This classic comedy is arguably Oscar Wilde’s true masterpiece and is currently playing for a relatively short run at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

As a fan of this Wildian romp through Victorian social climbing I was desperately looking forward to seeing this production. With David Suchet and Michele Dotrice there was a promise which was almost always carried the risk of under delivering.  However, in this case that was an unnecessary fear.

From the very first entrance on stage by Algernon Moncriefe, it was clear we were dealing with actors comfortable with large parts. The sets had been prepared with a conservative but effective attention to detail and simplicity but allowed a modern and witty directing style to keep the actors in a near permanent state  of animation.

Whilst this was well received by the audience (and ultimately it’s bums on seats that count) I thought the amount of ‘business’ on stage might be slightly more than was called for by the original, rather more leisurely script. However, it made for both a bright and pacey first act which took us rushing to the first of the two intervals.

globe2Only a few weeks earlier, I had been lucky enough to see As you Like It at the Globe theatre, a production I enjoyed and am similarly pleased to have seen.

However, for a production which spent so much time focusing on detail and accuracy there were a few ‘liberties’ taken with the production apparently to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Perhaps the most notable being the entrance of Audrey (a comedy foil) on stage riding a 1970’s style shopper cycle which  although effective was certainly anachronistic. For anyone other than the purist (and perhaps not even all of them) this worked well and brought humour to an otherwise ‘hard going’ part of the play. However, for me it jarred, it was almost lazy, the easy way out.

Please don’t misunderstand me, the actors concerned were both excellent and unless Audrey snuck in the cycle as some elaborate ad-lib, were operating as directed. Presumably the addition was felt necessary to lighten the mood and make the scene more accessible to a modern audience? It’s simply that with so much attention to detail elsewhere this was almost patronising to the audience. Would a wooden wheel-barrow or a donkey or anything less out of time been an impossibility? Alternatively, why not in line skates or a moped?

My concerns, such as they existed were similar for the Importance of being Earnest. The text is certainly of it’s time and even dated in parts, but directors please note – 90 percent of the audience know this before they buy the tickets.

clownFor my taste, the production fell just on the wrong side (at times) of pratfalls and farce. Again, it was clear why, to ma language more accessible, text less dense and to give multi-dimensional characterisation to characters who stretch the suspension of disbelief at times.

However, the amount of physical comedy from a cast who clearly could have achieved the same level of comedy from the beauty of the text was at times overdone for my liking – although many in the audience clearly loved it and didn’t share my concerns.

It is impossible (or perhaps more accTIOBE2urate to say) that it would be inappropriate to single out any particular cast member as they were a true ensemble acting as a traditional troupe.

David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was an amazingly subtle almost filmic tour de force of facial expressions and comedy timing. Having seen many others including Dame Maggie Smith and Edith Evans (albeit on film) he certainly found new space for this amazing character to live.

However, even here, (whether following direction or the actors wish not to ‘parrot’ Dame Edith), there was a singular choice which left me robbed of an old friend.

The best known line in the production is undoubtedly ‘A handbag?’ asked (usually incredulously) by Lady Bracknell on learning of the birthplace (or at least finding) or Jack Worthing.

Undoubtedly for the best of theatrical reasons, this was delivered not as a statement of shock or disbelief, but rather as a swallowed laugh. The only point in a spotless performance that I felt didn’t quite ring true.

DirectorSo was I glad to have seen the performances? Absolutely.  Did I enjoy them? Undoubtedly. My only appeal would be to Directors to trust their audiences to know the work they are about to watch or to be capable enough to endure the rough patches with the high emotional and performance peaks.

So much has been ‘dummed down’ in recent years that some of us seek out challenging, thought provoking and demanding theatre. Sometimes that also includes being reintroduced to an old friend who doesn’t need to have been subject to a ‘makeover’ or turned into pantomime. Be brave, be imaginative but remain true to the text and the spirit of the production.

Regrettably you are too late to see As you Like It, but if you get a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me I know not of what I speak, I would thoroughly recommend you to do so. Two amazing shows.

What is the point of Pride?

Pride expressedWhat is the point of Pride? An unusual topic to pick surely? Well bear with me and hopefully the seasonality  of this particular question will become apparent.

Pride is one of those human conditions that we know when we see it in others and when we experience it ourselves. The picture to the right screams pride to me, yet others see other meaning in the facial expression. In my purely personal and unscientific experiment, responses to the question ‘Describe the feeling within this picture’ have included Pride; in fact it was the most popular response – around 40% of those replying. However, I also received replies such as smug, sanctimonious, disdainful, condescending, sneering, conquering and superior. Interestingly, although it was the strongest reply, less than half of those who answered me associated the image with pride. Perhaps it’s a particularly difficult thing to recognise, or I was dealing with people who had difficulty reading expressions, or it was a poor choice of photograph.

angryAlthough unscientific, I had tried to consider some of those points. The photograph is of a model with the brief of expressing ‘pride’ -one of a range of similar photographs.

The same group had little difficulty in associating the second photograph with anger, rage or fury. In fact 24 out of 25 read the face in that way. So is there something special about pride?

In fact, the more I read and examined this area, the more doubt I uncovered. Some psychologists considered pride to be an emotion in its own right. Others argued it wasn’t an emotion at all, but was a considered response to other behaviours. In any event, pride is an area which has very little in the way of serious academic research and the value it brings to an individual or society seems unsettled.

Pride Model

Emotional Generation Model

Most of the serious models use a model similar to that shown here. It argues that there are complex (hybrid) emotions and more primal (true) emotions. When considering pride, it argues that this follows an appraisal of how a person has responded to a concern and/or stimulus. That stimulus could itself be one of the more basic primal emotions such as fear or rage.

This model could also explain why we find these less complex, more primal feelings more easy to identify in the facial expressions of others.

However, the question of what purpose pride has, what it contributes remains in debate. The usefulness of fear and anger can be easily seen as part of the self preservation instinct, necessary in evolutionary terms for life itself. However, pride seems an almost self-indulgent nive to have. The nearest I could find to any form of credible theory was that it was a pseudo reward mechanism which may have been an early trigger for self-reflection. It may not give anything in itself other than a warm glow, but could reinforce reflective practice and potentially some of the underlying positive behaviours. Hold that thought for a moment!

Of course, in recent years Pride has taken on an altogether different meaning, particularly for the younger, gay or festival generations. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a series of event championing equal rights for what was then called the ‘queer’ or homosexual population (there was no community recognised at that point) started to appear in major cities of the UK, most notably, London and Manchester.

Stonewall March

Stonewall March

Initially, these were  organised by Stonewall and they amounted to little more than an organised march with people dressed much as they would be if they were going to the cinema or theatre but with the occasional stonewall banner.

The purpose of the marches at that time was clear, equality in terms of rights, acceptance and integration into the wider community. As the 1980’s matured, the scourge of AIDS rose bringing a double challenge to the emerging gay community. Firstly, the emerging community was decimated by the arrival of HIV. Secondly and more challengingly, the natural fear of such a threatening virus seen as being born of the gay community brought a sense of ‘blame’ to that community further marginalising it in some quarters.

Manchester Mardi Gras 1996

Manchester Mardi Gras 1996

The Stonewall marches adapted as the eighties matured, these became more defiant and in some cases defiance veered towards the confrontational. However, these settled into a more educational and celebratory phase with accompanying name changes in most of the major events.

Manchester re-branded it’s celebrations as Mardi Gras with an increasing number of events emerging across the remainder of the country. Again, during this period the events had a clear purpose based around the battle against HIV/AIDS, the removal of clause 28 (perceived as homophobic legislation) and the promotion of ‘safe sex’. This continued through most of the naughties.

At that point my problems with these type of events started to grow. Arguably, the introduction of combination therapies leading to the effective management of HIV, the growing acceptance of homosexuality as part of mainstream society and the repeal of legislation such as Section 28 has removed the natural causes traditionally supported by such events.

Perhaps sensing this, Mardi-Gras and similar events started to diverge either competing with the growing festival scenes or becoming more of a celebration of an increasingly accepted homosexual lifestyle.  Mardi-Gras (along with most others) followed London by rebranding itself to first ‘Gay Pride’ and the simply ‘Pride’.

However, that acceptance and increased integration into mainstream lifestyle has at least for me sounded the first ringing of the death knell of Pride in its current form. In simple terms, they have lost their purpose and relevance for me.

Increasingly, these events have become more about being seen in gear, walking on the march (for reasons that are unclear to me) and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. They have also moved from the largely free events of the 1970’s to events in their own right often charging between £15 and £30 to gain entry.

Whist I have nothing against walking in the street, wearing gear or copious amounts of alcohol, I can do that in many places and don’t need to pay for the privilege of so doing. If the money raised during these events went to counter some of the modern battles facing the gay community I would have less of an issue. However, typically the collection funds the running costs of the events with just 3-5% going to related charities and good causes.

gmpprideFrom my perspective, the development of Pride events as a commercial event now has very little to do with its original purpose. Now, its much more about bringing in the cash (the cynics might say milking the pink pound).

The worst example I can think of would be Manchester Pride 2014 sad for a city that has contributed so much to equality. In that example, a large area of the city (the gay village) was blocked off with the right to enter, pass and re-pass without hindrance suspended – unless of course you purchased a wrist band grating you access. Residents were granted ‘permits’ to reach their own homes but everyone else was prevented from gaining access.

I would have no issue if this was a private place or related exclusively to venues taking part in the ‘event’. However this wasn’t the case and people were effectively being charged to access public roads as a pedestrian. The actions of the Council in 2014 in relation to the implementation of the road closure have since been found to have been unlawful by the local government ombudsman (details of the issue can be found here). By extension, the security contractors and Greater Manchester Police who enforced the orders found themselves in a difficult position one nobody wanted to repeat this year. How far from the original ambitions of those who first marched.

Loss of Direction?

Loss of Direction?

So, what’s my point? What have I got against Pride? To answer that we need to go back to the purpose of pride in psychological terms. Pride allows us to reflect on concerns and stimulus, assess and feel we have/are making improvements or contributing to their being improved.

Has Pride simply become just another reason to drink until you fall over and be seen in your best leather, rubber or just show off your perfect abs?

The historic educational component is largely gone, the supportive and community aspects have in my view started to go the same way. Are there no  longer any issues for the gay community to address and raise in the public consciousness? I haven’t seen anything, for example, to support those struggling with the emergence of ‘chem sex’ within the gay community. An increasing dependence on chrystal meth and similar chemicals can be life shattering for some and there is precious little support for anyone wanting to give up outside London. Similarly, there is barely any educational or community support visible at any modern pride.

Isis throw men from tall buildings for being gay

Isis throw men from tall buildings for being gay

So is it just the case that the political scene for LGBT communities is now so settled that there is nothing left to fix?

Whilst it may be the case that things have improved incredibly over the past couple of decades in the UK, that is far from true in the rest of the world.

In the most extreme examples, ISIS are executing men by throwing them off multi storey buildings just for being gay. So far in 2015 there have been over 200 documented cases.

In less extreme examples, there are still significant issues of equality to be tackled both within the UK and internationally. These include the failure to recognise same sex partners as next of kin in many jurisdictions, the inability to marry or enter into civil partnerships in countries including Australia and unfair dismissal due to sexual orientation.  These would seem to indicate that the battle isn’t quite yet won. Yet on these points, Pride is typically silent in favour of stalls selling often over-priced  tat.

If the human state of pride is a psychological mechanism allowing reflection and improvement then I hope organisers of the various Pride events might take a lead from that example. Surely we can do better than what has been described as ‘just another piss-up in the park’. For my money until the modern day Pride events offer more than just another booze-up then it’s legitimate to ask exactly what is the point of pride?

The rehabilitation of an ‘artist’ and salvation for Weston ?

Sometimes, the juxtaposition of two elements creates something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It appears to me, this is particularly true when the elements being brought together are unexpected and wouldn’t be something you would naturally think of in partnership. I think I may have spotted just such a marriage today. The problem is that by their nature it’s nearly impossible to spot the difference between an act of genius and a car crash.

‘Weston-super-Mare’, BR poster, 1948-1965.

‘Weston-super-Mare’, BR poster, 1948-1965.

From the 1920’s Weston Super Mare in Somerset developed a name as a traditional seaside resort. As a resort at that time it had a lot going for it, a great pier, easy rail routes from the industrial centres of Birmingham and Manchester and the warmer climate of the west country.

The town even made allowances for it’s rather ‘muddy’ beach (so much so it can rather cruelly be know as Weston-super-mud) by building and promoting a lido. With landladies arguably second only to those of Blackpool and a natural knack for advertising Weston became the west country seaside destination.

Under the banner or ‘Weston Super Mare with air like wine’ the town reached its zenith in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Although remaining a popular summer destination for many, the town has suffered from the rise of cheap air travel and package holidays to sunnier and hotter locations. Indeed the reliability (or lack of it) of the British summer has perhaps been the biggest factor in the decline of Weston from those Halcion days, not even donkeys on the beach and a revitalised pier being able to fully compete.

As for that lido, unfortunately time has not been kind on what was once one of the jewels in the town’s crown. Gradual decline and disuse has left the building empty and in parts near derelict despite several attempts to revitalise or repurpose the complex into something more useful to the local community.

tropRebranded in the 1970’s and 80’s the Tropicana became something of a political football with several redevelopment schemes failing to get off the ground for a variety of reasons. In anyone’s books it is a rather sad and bleak shadow of its former self.

With changes to local government boundaries, many would argue that Weston has suffered from the continuing rise of Bristol.  With that city’s growth and rise as a regional centre, it is Bristol that has grown into the regional hub for business, entertainment and the arts more generally.

That said, not all Bristolian artists have been universally acclaimed or even that visible. Odd as it seems, there is a fairly strong history of artists acting counter-culturally and shunning the very oxygen you would imagine they seek – publicity.

Eddie Izzard Season Four Premiere Screening Of "Nip/Tuck" - Arrivals Paramount Studios Hollywood, California USA August 25, 2006 Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.com To license this image (10076180), contact WireImage: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Germany +49-40-320-05521 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) info@wireimage.com (e-mail) www.wireimage.com (web site)

Eddie Izzard

Stretching back as far as  Pope and George Elliot there have been those artists who avoid the attention of the media of their time.

More recently, despite the initial unlikely nature of this relationship, artists such as Euan Uglow, Francis Davison, Michael Andrews and even Eddie Izzard have exhibited the same behaviours. Some appear to be genuinely averse to the attention whilst others may well be benefiting from their natural ability to manipulate the expected norms of modern marketing.

Perhaps the greatest current exponent of this art is Bristol born Banksy. His initial reticence in the early 1990’s may well have been because his early works were often considered to be little more than vandalism or graffiti. He was certainly not welcomed in many of the locations in which his stencilled art appeared, certainly not in those early years in any event.

One of the significant differences (with all except perhaps George Elliot) is the fact that Banksy has managed to keep his identity more or less secret since that time.Thought to be Bristol born Robin Gunningham or Robin Banks, speculation still abounds as to his true identity, no doubt adding to his cache and popularity.

banksyghazaKnown for satirical and thought provoking images, his work is now known world wide including the curtain being drawn back on paradise painted on the Israeli security wall within the Gaza strip. His artwork now regularly sells for up to £500,000

So, my unexpected juxtaposition could best be explained by the question ‘What happens when you cross Banksy with Weston Super Mare?’

The answer is something unexpected, bleak, thought provoking and subversive but which those lucky enough to have seen it say is an overwhelmingly positive and uplifting (if somewhat challenging) experience.

dismalandDue to open for local audiences tomorrow and to the wider public shortly afterwards Banksy has collaborated with other artists to create Dismaland. Complete with a very familiar type faced sign and morose volunteers welcoming guests to this bleak attraction this ‘bemusement park’ looks like breathing life into Weston over the coming months as it will undoubtedly draw fans from across the country and around the globe.

It will be interesting to see how the notoriously litigious Disney corporation respond to the parody (including ears on the volunteers that look remarkably mouse-like).

So is this just a publicity stunt or is there more to this surreal and ultimate in pop-up art culture.

bumper

Death on a bumper car

Taking over the whole of the tired and broken Troicana, Dismaland feeds on the atmosphere of entropy and decline with a mix of humorous and the bizarre, political comment and audience participation.

Although Banksy isn’t the sole artist, his work and that of Damien Hurst dominate the more challenging and provocative pieces. There is the unfortunate unicorn in formaldehyde (a Shetland pony gave it’s life for a piece I could really have done without) however, Hurst’s fragility of love featuring a beach ball hovering over a collection of sharp knives and shards of glass is both imaginative and strangely touching.

In addition to these pieces are works from other artists all with a darkness within their theme but somehow bringing a sense of wonder and tackling some fairly deep and topical issues ranging from immigration to commercialism and environmental issues.

The Princess' Carriage

The Princess’ Carriage

Perhaps the most political and subversive pieces is displayed within a decayed and abandoned castle (again a la Disney). In this, a pumpkin carriage is seen overturned in a tunnel with the body of Cinderella hanging from the carriage window whilst being photographed by the gathering paparazzi.

No explanation or parallels are drawn and none were needed. However, it was clear that the subtext was all too apparent to those viewing it.

This is far from the simple stencils on walls of the 1990’s. As someone who is not usually a fan of modern conceptual art, this collection made me think and respect the thought and effort put into its creation and presentation. Far from a car crash of a marriage, I suspect Weston will once again be the throbbing hub of the west country for the next six months or so.

Ironically, this year’s poor summer and the relative decline of the building is exactly what is needed to showcase this most unusual and imaginative collection.

Those in the town of Weston-Super-Mare can’t speak highly enough of Banksy and his counterparts. A true rehabilitation of those artists who’s work was washed from the walls years before. It’s unclear at this time where the money which will be raised is going and how much of this might find its way back to Weston. I hope this dark and confronting  collection of works brings some brightness and happiness to a town which has had more than it’s share of troubles. For something so initially dark, it is surprisingly uplifting and enjoyable. A strange but productive marriage.