Blog : Posts from June 2009

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Stranger In A Strange Land

In which we watch some films with sex in


It’s been a quiet month on the site this month, as regular readers might have noticed. There have been plenty of things to keep us busy, firstly; and the hot summer days leave me feeling rather drained each evening, not in a mood to sit down and write something. Not to mention that we spent three successive evenings this week going down to the cinema. We heard that The Cube was showing a mini-season of Japanese “Pink Cinema”. Reading the descriptions in the programme, we couldn’t resist any of it.

Pink Cinema” is, not to put too fine a point on it, pornographic. It is: dirty films, made to fit a strict template. An hour of film, with plenty of sex but nothing to concern the letter-of-the-law Japanese censors, made to fill up screen time in specialist cinemas which show nothing else. As the audience, such as it is nowadays, doesn’t really care what’s in the film,* the writers and directors can choose whatever topic or style they want to write about; as a result, pink cinema is an astonishingly broad genre. The season – curated by a chap called Jasper Sharp who is probably the world’s leading expert in the field, having written a comprehensive book about it – included five films over the three nights, but each of those five was radically different in style and contect, from serious drama through martial arts action to political satire.

First up was A Lonely Cow Weeps At Dawn, also known as The Cowshed Of Immorality. Before you start wondering, it had nothing to do with actual bestiality,** but was a sad tale of an elderly farmer who had been plunged into senility by the deaths of his son and his favourite cow. His daughter-in-law tried to take the cow’s place, and his wayward daughter, a prostitute, returned to their village and became involved in a scheme to trick the man out of his land. Hot on its heels came Sexy Battle Girls, which I’ve been assured was a big influence on Tarantino. Made in the mid-80s, its story concerned a man who, years ago, had been humiliated when a rival with a larger penis stole his wife away from him. He brought their daughter up as a martial arts expert who would one day seek revenge using her special superpower: a vagina of inhuman strength. How this superpower emerged, or how it was discovered, wasn’t quite explained; but we did see her father shoving an apple inside her underwear and shouting “Crush it!”, before four neatly-quartered apple pieces dropped to the floor. Scary. The villain of the piece turned out to be headmaster of a prestigious school. In typical villain fashion, he also turned out to be selling delinquent schoolgirls to top politicians. In slightly less typical villain fashion, a small stuffed bird was attached to his shoulder at all times.

Friday night’s films started with another serious piece: New Tokyo Decadence: The Slave. It was, as you might expect, about BDSM; rather like Secretary, it followed a masochist who starts an affair with her boss. It was a subtle film, which carefully showed the title character’s emotions as she struggled to balance physical pleasure with affection. It was followed by a film which wasn’t subtle in any way: S&M Hunter, an almost-slapstick tale of a laconic one-eyed bondage expert commissioned to rescue a gay man from the clutches of a group of rebellious and sex-mad young women. He triumphed, of course, suspending the gang’s leader from a construction crane, despite having lost his other eye in their final duel. The series was rounded off on Saturday night by one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, The Glamorous Life Of Sachiko Hanai. The title character of the film is a sex worker shot in the head during a dispute between two spies. Running away alive, she accidentally leaves with the object the spies were fighting over; moreover, the bullet in her brain gives her superhuman intelligence and mind-reading powers. She starts an affair with a philosophy professor,*** and then discovers that the object the spies were fighting over is a disembodied finger cloned from George W Bush.**** If you’ve never seen a girl being raped by a bright red finger, apparently able to fly, while the American President shouts things at her from a TV screen in the background, then, well, I’d recommend this movie.

Each night’s programme was followed by a question-and-answer session with the curator, Mr Sharp, which tended to turn into something more of a freeform discussion. Friday night’s, in particular, turned into a slightly vicious debate between a group of people near the back of the theatre who had been giggling, sniggering and reading out the subtitles all through the most serious bits, and a woman at the front who had told them to shut up.***** The let’s-laugh-at-the-dodgy-subtitles group defended themselves on the grounds that the whole programme was Exploitation Cinema, and therefore audience participation should be expected; and that it doesn’t matter if anyone talks over a subtitled film because as you can read the words, you don’t have to be able to hear the dialogue. I don’t really think either argument was particularly strong, and neither did anyone else we spoke to.

I’m glad we went along to the Behind The Pink Curtain season, and the titillation angle was neither a plus or a negative. “It’s definitely porn you can watch with a girl!” I heard one audience-member say during an interval. “Well, indeed,” said the girl he was talking to. I think he might have been missing the point of the films slightly. Unlike most hardcore porn, solely about the mechanics of sex, these films had characterisation, plot and sometimes subtlety. The sex, moreover, was realistic, naturalistic sex.****** Dirty, messy, noisy everyday sex. That, alone, sets “pink films” aside from most of what appears in the media. It makes me think that maybe, despite the offensive and extreme aspects to some of the films, maybe the Japanese attitude to sex is healthier than ours.

* other than the sex, natch

** which would now be very illegal to show in a cinema, I understand

*** who shouts out names like “Noam Chomsky!” and “Susan Sontag!” as he climaxes

**** This being a 2003 film

***** As we were leaving, I think I overheard this woman saying she thought she could have taken the others had it come down to fighting. I’m kind of disappointed it didn’t.

****** Well, apart from that one scene with George W Bush’s finger

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Strange Times

In which research fails


Sometimes, there are little things that bug me. Like: remembering the vague outline of the plot of a book I read 20 years ago, but not being able to remember enough to track it down. Or remembering something I saw on TV,* or read in a library book at some point in the distant past.

It’s something like that that’s bugging me at the moment. Regular readers might know that I occasionally enjoy talking about prophets and predictors of the future, noting people who make predictions that fail to come true, or try to rewrite their predictions retrospectively to match the actual events. Ages ago, probably approaching the 20-years scale, I read that a sometime-famous clairvoyant had predicted that a nuclear war was going to start, and that it would involve a nuclear attack on Hull. Which may one day happen, I suppose.** Unfortunately, this was a prophecy with a very specific date, and that date was in 1981.

The only hint I have to go on is that I’m fairly sure this was in a book I got from my local library of 20 years ago, and it might have been by Jenny Randles. As Jenny Randles has written several shelves’ worth of paranormal books, that’s not much help. It may well have a book about the vast number of prophecies indicating that Something Horrible Would Happen To Civilisation As We Know It around the start of this century; clearly all very very accurate ones. There’s not much to go on, though, and searching for information on prophecies about Hull hasn’t dragged anything up either. So, in trying to track this one down, I’m puzzled.

* Like an old movie where a pit pony refuses to be evacuated from a coal mine and gets blown up in an accident as a result. That movie gave me nightmares for weeks.

** Feel free to insert the compulsary joke along the lines of “at least [insert street/district here] might be improved a bit”

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The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present


A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all.** The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

** like this person who read my thoughts on the topic and disagreed.

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Insult

In which FP must have upset someone


I woke up, to find a bright, sunny morning outside. I threw back the front room curtains, and noticed something outside, on the window sill. Someone had left a book there. Curious. I wonder what it might be. Maybe it’s something good.

I looked closer. And then: I saw the author’s name in bright shiny letters. Jeffrey Archer.

What have I done, I wondered? What have I done to annoy the neighbours so much, that someone would leave a Jeffrey Archer book on the window sill? Or was it some random visitor from Weston-super-Mare, maybe? It’s a mystery to me. And, moreover, what should I do with it?

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Fiction

In which FP gets annoyed by a TV advert


Now, I know I shouldn’t believe advertising. I know I should assume that most people probably don’t believe advertising, and I shouldn’t let myself get worked up about it. But, still, something has been getting my goat lately.

Crisps. One particular brand of crisps, in fact, whose adverts ramble on about some intrepid traveller finding particularly tasty spices overseas, and shipping them home so he could use them to flavour his crisps. And they go on:

That traveller’s name was Phileas Fogg…

No. No, it wasn’t. Phileas Fogg is a fictional character. He’s not real. He was invented by an author, for a book. He’s conveniently old enough to be out-of-copyright, so you can take his name and use it to brand your savoury snacks. So, he didn’t go to Indonesia or wherever and discover tasty spices, because he doesn’t exist. So stop lying to us.

Phileas Fogg: the crisps with the blatant lies in the adverts.

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Humility

In which Yorkshire and the Humber turns nasty


This is just a quick note; I didn’t intend to write another political post so soon again. But I felt it needed saying, as someone who was born in the now-deceased Humberside and was a registered voter in the Humber region until last year. I’m ashamed, to come from a region in which a six-figure number of people are willing to vote for a party with no real policies other than removing citizenship from non-white people. The elected candidate has claimed that he “heard a rumour” that the Prime Minister has considered annulling his election result.* No doubt his party would love for that to happen. What is more important: this election result happened because of a drop in turnout. It shows how vital it is that we have an open democracy where voters are able to make an educated choice, and exercise their right to make it.

* in his acceptance speech, if you want to go and check.

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The Politics Show

In which FP goes through a few voting-related topics


I’ve been quiet about politics here lately, save for that post about revolutions the other day. The more noise there is about politics in the press, the less I want to add to the “debate”. All I feel like doing is pointing out the endless opportunism and hypocrisy of all, and that’s so plain it doesn’t need to be said.

We did vote, though. However apathetic I might get about politics, I still keep an eye on the news and the policies; and voting’s important. To get back on to the French Revolution, it’s one of the rights that Robespierre fought for even as he was also fighting for the right of the government to purge anyone he considered to be in the government’s way. I know I keep harping on about the French Revolution, but it’s still rattling around in my head a lot and I’d like to get it out of the way to make room for normal things again. Getting back onto the topic: lots of people would say that the European Parliament isn’t important, that despite the laws that emanate from it, most of the work done there emerges from the back room of the Commission. To that I’d say: voting for part of a partly-democratic system is better than voting for none of it. Moreover, I have my own view of Britain, and how I’d like Britain represented in the wider world,* and the MEPs that represent us form an important part of that.

The city elections made the news, being the one yellow blob on the map surrounded by a sea of blue; but we didn’t get to vote in those. Due to the city electing by thirds, only two thirds of the city wards participate in each election. This year, we were one of the wards which took a holiday from electing.

I did hear, a few months back, of a campaign to end the “by thirds” system in Bristol and move to all-out elections. It seemed to be a Labour Party led campaign: at least, I first heard about it via a now-former Labour councillor, who had started a petition for it on the council website; and it emerged just after the council’s minority Labour administration had resigned. I could see partly why the Labour party might be attracted to the idea: although they only held about a quarter of the seats on the council, at the elections, over a third of the seats up for election were Labour seats. They lost heavily, as they were predicted to do, at a time when they were the party with the most to lose. What goes around comes around, though; at the next election, things will be a little more balanced, and Labour will only be holding about 20% of the seats up for election.**

I’m not convinced that there’s any need for all-at-once elections. It might make it hard for some parties, some of the time, to gain control of the council; but often those parties find themselves in the position they deserve. Moreover, it can be a good thing for it to take several elections for a party to gain control of the council, and the overall time taken is no longer. All-out elections would only make sense if proportional representation was brought in at the same time; and I can’t see the local Labour Party being in favour of that. Maybe they will be after the next council elections, though.

* not to mention the regions I have particular attachment to

** still a higher percentage than they now hold across the full council.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we compare analogue and digital


It took me a while to catch on to the idea of digital photography. “Bah,” I thought, “you can’t spend hours in the darkroom with a digital photo. And I’ll always need to keep buying more and more disk space.” Both slightly false excuses, to be honest: it’s years since I’ve had easy access to a darkroom, and the disk space doesn’t get burned up that quickly. Generally, though, it was a good thing that I didn’t rush into it; I saved up, until I could afford a good camera, rather than jump in at the cheap end. And I’m pleased with what I got.

This post, though, follows up from the previous Photo Post Of The Week, in which, as I said, K and I walked up through London from Tate Modern to Clerkenwell, retracing a route I’d done a few years before. Both times, I took photos. Three years ago, I had my cheaply-grabbed-on-Ebay Nikon F801 with me. Here’s one of the photos:

Grand Avenue, Smithfield

This time, we took K’s nifty little compact Panasonic. Remembering the last trip, I deliberately retook that last photo with it:

Smithfield Market

I can see straight away which is the better photo. That doesn’t mean I regret waiting until I could afford a good digital camera; but it does make me wonder what opportunities I missed, and what I could have improved with my film shots.

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Local Transport

In which we consider the Wensleydale Railway


Sometimes, when we’re idly sitting on the sofa after work, we put the telly on and can’t even summon the energy to change the channel. Instead, we leave it showing things we’d never normally bother watching; but sometimes that throws up an interesting gem.* Like tonight’s One Show for example. We wouldn’t normally watch The One Show, but occasionally it does have some interesting inserts. Tonight: an item on the Wensleydale Railway.

Coming from Oop North, I’ve been on the Wensleydale Railway a couple of times. It’s pretty long, for a private railway, pushing the length of busy, popular private railways such as the West Somerset, the Ffestiniog or the North Yorks Moors.** Unlike those railways, though, it’s something of a quiet backwater, slightly ramshackle, with a sparse service operated mostly by 1950s diesel trains which main-line companies retired in the 90s. Being a bit of a backwater, appearing on the telly will hopefully be a big boost for it: not many people tend to know it’s there. It may be in the Yorkshire Dales but it stops just short of the National Park; it may be on the A1, but it’s damn hard to notice from the road. If you want to see what it looks like, I run a small Flickr group for Wensleydale Railway pictures, largely because I had some Wensleydale Railway pictures on there and there wasn’t a group for it already.

One of the Wensleydale’s directors appeared on The One Show, and told the world what a unique railway it is; and how it performs a vital link in the community, and in Wensleydale’s regeneration, providing services to commuters and enabling them to get to major regional centres. Neither of those claims, really, are true. The director carefully skirted around the issue of whether the Wensleydale provides those services right now. Certainly, they’re hoping that it will do: that the company will be able to connect to the main line at Northallerton, and thence provide a connection to Newcastle, York, Teesside and Manchester. Right now, though, it stops short, and completing the connection seems to be on a distant horizon. When it does, the company will need a fuller timetable to be a reliable link: at present it operates three trains a day, on about 185 days of the year. The first one starts moving just after 9 o’clock; the last has stopped by 5.

Running a community rail service is hardly a unique aspiration to have, too. In fact, almost every private, preserved, or steam railway in the country has aspired to run a commuter and/or community service at some point. Very few have even got as far as trying it; the Worth Valley Railway did, in the late 1960s, and rapidly found it to be unviable. One private railway has done it successfully: the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch, operating services for schoolchildren. They do not, unlike most private railways, rely on volunteer workers to operate. The Ffestiniog also provides a genuine service for local residents; but it is strongly subsidised by their tourist revenues, which the Wensleydale doesn’t have.

There are two big problems with trying to operate a community service; well, make that three big problems. Firstly, there are two connected problems: price, and workforce. Railways are workforce-intensive, and private railways have to either pay staff, or get volunteers to turn out every day. Moreover, if they want to run a commuter service, they have to persuade those volunteers to start very early in the morning. Paying the staff, and the running costs, is very expensive; when you’re operating a railway which was considered too expensive to run at a profit, you end up charging fares which are too expensive for commuters. A return ticket on the Wensleydale already costs over £10, for the full line.*** Moreover, there’s a third problem: speed. Nearly all private railways have to operate with a blanket speed limit of 20 or 25mph. Over the sort of distance the Wensleydale operates, that means a long journey. Fine for a summer jaunt; not good for serious travel. It’s the speed, more than anything else, that makes the Wensleydale’s long-term aims rather impractical.

There’s nothing wrong with the Wensleydale aspiring to their aims, of being a community railway operating a non-tourist service. I would be very surprised, though, if they do manage to complete them, purely because so many have gone before and so many have failed. If the Wensleydale think they are unique, and if they don’t realise that they are treading down a well-trodden path once more, they are very unlikely to reach that path’s end.

* such as a local news item about the wildlife of the BS3 district which made me laugh, for entirely the wrong reason – but that’s a story for another day.

** Incidentally, the local news has been annoying me recently, by proclaiming loudly that the West Somerset Railway is the longest steam railway in the country. It’s one of the longest, certainly, at just under 20 miles operational and 3 more miles not regularly used; but the Welsh Highland Railway, owned by the Ffestiniog, is longer and not yet fully open. By the end of the year, the Ffestiniog Railway Company will be operating a network pushing 40 miles in length. Longest steam railway in England, maybe.

*** The Ffestiniog gets around the price issue by having local residents’ discount cards.

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Estates-General

In which we discuss differences between Britain and France


Politics seems to have become a bit of a grind at the moment. The same stories, over and over, over and over until all the details get confused; the government pushing on grim-faced against public opinion, and the Tories trying to jump onto the election-calling bandwagon on the grounds that they expect to win the election and want it to come along ASAP. It might be the sort of politics that needs doing; but it’s not the sort of politics that stirs the imagination. It’s hardly another revolution.

Jeremy Paxman announced on Newsnight tonight that the Prime Minister had announced a National Convention on Democratic Renewal. Either Paxman made a slight mistake or my ears did, because elsewhere on the Internet it’s described as a National Council on the subject. I was slightly disappointed. I liked the sound of a National Convention, possibly because I’ve been reading about the French Revolution a lot lately. By the time the French called elections for a National Convention, to create a French Republic, the Revolution had already been revolving for three years or so, through a succession of failed democratic structures one after the other.

Those democratic structures had different names, over the years, and differences in detail; but at heart they all derived from one concept: that the nation’s elected representatives are a sovereign body, because they represent the will of the people. They became France’s de facto sovereign body in June 1789, a few weeks before the Bastille fell; and its de jure sovereign body over the following months as they created that country’s first written constitution.* The National Council on Democratic Renewal, though, doesn’t sound like any of these French assemblies. Rather, it sounds like an earlier French assembly from 1788: the Assembly of Notables, a handpicked crew gathered to debate ways to save the country from ruin. In one sense, they failed, because their recommendation was for a democratic and representative body to meet in their place. I doubt whether the National Council on Democratic Renewal will come up with any recommendation quite so revolutionary.

Then again, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve probably heard about the actress and TV presenter Lynda Bellingham, who, a couple of months back, called for a revolution along French lines. I’m not sure if she realises quite what the French Revolution involved: that it wasn’t just a quick riot followed by a bit of workaday guillotining of the king and some aristocrats. Indeed, the king stayed on his throne for the first three years; the mass guillotining of “counter-revolutionaries” started a year after that, by which time France had provoked a major European war. All in all, revolutionary government lasted for about 12 years in total; think back from today to the election of Tony Blair. That’s how serious a revolution is.

* After the fashion of the American one which, ironically, had partly led to the French Revolution. It was the French who saved America in the American Revolutionary War; and it was the American Revolutionary War which bankrupted the French royal government.

** which the British were heavily involved in, even capturing one of France’s main naval ports at one point.

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