NOTHING IS REAL

R + JWorking my way through ye olde ‘Exposure’ series for the first time in at least five years as I upload it to my Patreon site, I came across one instalment in the series the other day that was rather chilling in its Nostradamus-like prescience. This particular episode, produced roundabout 2013/14 (but no later), was a spoof of Channel 4 News and featured a lead story that perhaps explained why satire seems to be so thin on the ground these days. Basically, it announced the government had introduced a new law whereby saying something considered ‘offensive’ in the privacy of one’s home was now a criminal offence, and failure to report knowledge of such a heinous act was also illegal. I did wonder if Nicola Sturgeon had watched said video when it was on YouTube almost a decade ago and thought ‘Hey, that’s not a bad wee idea’. How can one compete in 2021, when reality has replicated parody?

Any prediction of future events in a work of satire is usually accidental; satire by its very nature exaggerates real life and subverts current events by offering a ridiculous slant on them. If current events eventually develop along lines suggested in a satire that was intended to imagine the most outrageous interpretation of, say, contemporary political policy, chances are the satirist is not directly responsible and those who are have no sense of humour. All kinds of wild scenarios are dreamt up in the name of satire, whether the Ministry of Silly Walks or the insane, nonsensical headlines on ‘The Day Today’. I certainly didn’t seriously foresee any government would actually propose a law in which such a subjective subject as causing offence would be pivotal to the increasing encroachment of the state into the private space. But, hey ho, we are living in even stranger days than we were a decade ago, when the foundations for these strange days were being laid and I was evidently picking up on what was happening – without realising where it was going.

One theme that runs through ‘Exposure’ is the infantilisation and mollycoddling of the young, something I continued in a video produced not long after the series ended, and one that remains on YT. This was a trailer for a new BBC3 service known as ‘Uni-Zone’, an Open University-like slot featuring ‘safe space’ learning complete with specially doctored courses and trigger warnings. Academia may have suffered the most high profile pollution of its purpose by this mindset, but the arts have fallen to the artless like the rest of our cultural institutions; the whole raison d’être of literature – especially fiction – is being strangled by it, and now the theatre has retreated back to the sterile playpen of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, wherein any play perceived as possessing the power to ‘trigger’ a delicate audience is trailed by not merely an onstage announcement before the production begins, but an entire leaflet listing potential ‘triggering’ moments.

A trigger warning, like a movie bearing an X certificate back in the old days, subliminally primes the viewer to expect something disturbing, so anything that appears – however innocuous – can be interpreted as such. Just as those who view the world through the prism of racism see racism in literally everything even when it isn’t there, telling an audience beforehand that they are destined to be disturbed by what they’re about to receive more or less guarantees they probably will be. If one were to take this approach to England’s most revered playwright, one might imagine the likes of ‘Titus Andronicus’, with its rapes, mutilations and cannibalism, would be the first to fall under the triggering spotlight. However, it is his most celebrated love story that has been wrapped in blood-stained cotton wool and served-up to what the producers anticipate as an audience of fragile snowflakes – and at the most prestigious Shakespearean venue of them all, the Globe. Boys and girls, prepare to be traumatised for life…by Romeo and Juliet.

Perhaps it’s telling that the only facet of the play one might consider potentially disturbing to a modern audience – the fact that Juliet is supposed to be thirteen – isn’t considered disturbing enough to the producers, who have instead jumped on the mental health bandwagon and concentrated on the tragic ending. The revised rules of cinematic entertainment under this new world order specify gay characters must be played by gay actors, trans characters by trans actors, disabled characters by disabled actors and so on; the whole point of acting, of one person adopting the identity of another and convincing an audience they are that person for the duration of the performance, is suspended and sacrificed for ‘authenticity’; if live theatre is to emulate the illogical logic of cultural appropriation, the climax of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ therefore demands the onstage suicide of the two leads every night, surely? That’d be correctly authentic for spectators unable to grasp the concept of pretence that is acting, yes? But no! It’s not two fresh faces for each performance! It’s the same ones – and that means they don’t really kill themselves. I want my money back!

However, just in case an audience fails to discern that what they’re watching isn’t genuine – as though they might mistake each confrontation between Montagues and Capulets taking place before them as akin to stumbling upon a mass brawl in a pub car park – the production’s checklist issues the reassuring declaration that everyone is actually pretending. What? I don’t understand. ‘Near the end of the play,’ says this helpful guide, ‘when Romeo drinks poison, the actor pretends to vomit and convulse. This is not real and he is not hurt.’ What? I don’t understand. Apparently, ‘at the end, Juliet shoots herself. This is not real.’ What? I don’t understand. ‘There is stage blood and vomit in this production. It is not real.’ No! ‘There is stage fighting in this production. The violence is not real and should not be copied.’ But isn’t this supposed to be real? What can all this possibly mean? If what we’re seeing isn’t real, what is it? Has some sadistic bastard invented some horrific new art-form to torment and torture us?

Amazingly, this production isn’t aimed at an audience of primary school infants – who might perhaps struggle to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not when it’s taking place outside of their internal imaginations – but proper grownups, or at least the almost-grownup (AKA millennials). Patronising them and crediting them with so little intelligence that they have to be told everyone onstage is pretending makes one wonder what the producers thought their potential punters imagined they were doing when finding themselves sitting in a theatre to watch a play. Even some laughable Legz Akimbo-type student theatre group touring schools and staging little plays about ‘issues’ wouldn’t stoop so low as to assume their audience couldn’t tell the difference between real life and acting. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, like most works by the Bard, is rooted in universal themes allowing for unlimited interpretations over the centuries; the flexibility of their themes can be attuned to whatever happens to be happening within contemporary culture, and in that respect I suppose this particular telling of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is upholding the tradition.

Helpfully, the info sheet accompanying the production offers any distressed audience member the comfort blanket of further info available at the box office, which is presumably now a branch of the Samaritans. A spokesperson for the Globe has stated the 2021 version of the play intends to ‘address problems young people face today’, almost as though no previous generation of young people have ever faced any of the problems the play is based around. ‘As we’ve chosen to focus on mental health,’ the spiel went, ‘we want to provide information to those who may need it.’ In other words, the entertainment factor has been sucked out of the play and what we’re left with is a glorified public information film for the mentally retarded.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

TAKE FIVE

‘Five years, that’s all we’ve got’ – so prophesised David Bowie on the apocalyptic opener to his breakthrough album, 1972’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Five years was also the length of the sentence handed down to ‘habitual criminal’ Norman Stanley Fletcher in Ronnie Barker’s classic sitcom ‘Porridge’ – as the judge reminded viewers in his speech to the condemned man in the opening titles of each episode; voiced by Barker himself in the requisite sonorous tones, the speech concluded with the unnerving last words, ‘you will go to prison for five years’ – cue the chilling slamming of cell doors. Not the most joyous beginning for a half-hour comedy, but at least ‘Fletch’ must have gained early release on parole, as the series ended two years short of his sentence. Five is an intriguing number, though – as most enigmatic odd ones are; Enid Blyton knew that, as did Motown and the Dave Brubeck Quartet; even a crap boy-band of the late 90s got it – as did a crap TV channel that appeared at the same time. Jazzy prog-rockers Soft Machine called their fifth album ‘5’ – and then there’s David Bowie…

Bowie’s version of a five year sentence sets the scene for the arrival of the singer’s exotic alter-ego as the impending end of the world looms large; the track is laced with deliciously black imagery, including such unforgettable lines as ‘A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest/and the queer threw up at the sight of that.’ The subject of much debate at the time – and lyrics printed on LP inner sleeves were regarded as poetic riddles back in the early 70s – the song’s ultimate meaning is essentially ambiguous and can be moulded to fit the listener’s own interpretation. Taking it literally is pointless, as we all know the world didn’t end in 1977; but the fact Bowie opted for five years – rather than, say, the more expansive ten – gives the song a sense of fearful urgency in which its various disparate characters react differently to the sudden expiry date on their lives. A full ten years contains a degree of breathing space; five years has little, so you have to squeeze in as much as you can.

A five-year period can contain a staggering amount of creative purple patches: between 1971 and 1976, David Bowie released six albums of new material – including Ziggy’s saga – as did his equally prolific contemporary Stevie Wonder; between 1964 and 1969, The Beatles released eight albums of new material, whereas their equally prolific contemporary Bob Dylan released seven in the same timeframe. Go back just over 100 years before that, to when the written word was the dominant artistic statement, and take five years from literature’s golden age: the half-decade from 1847 to 1852 saw the publication of ‘Agnes Grey’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘Mary Barton’, ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Enough landmark works there to fill a ‘proper’ decade.

Travel back a little further and we find one solitary wordsmith – as far as we know – embarking on a stellar career with an astonishing burst of creativity. In the five years between 1590 and 1595, William Shakespeare is credited with writing all three instalments of ‘Henry VI’ as well as ‘Richard III’, ‘The Comedy of Errors’, ‘Titus Andronicus’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. ‘Richard II’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are also believed to have been started – but not completed – in 1595. That’s a pretty impressive run by anybody’s standards, let alone within five years. Shakespeare scholars are not the type of people to pluck such estimates out of thin air, and one can confidently assume a chronology was assembled with fairly intensive research.

Even for those whose lives aren’t measured by artistic output, a five-year period can house enough events to define a life. If we look back on especially eventful periods we’ve lived through, ones marked by that catalogue of life-changing moments familiar to the many, such as embarking on a career, moving home, marrying, siring offspring etc., these tend to occur close together and within a relatively short space of time – like five years. For example, between 1996 and 2001, I myself moved home three times and the cast of characters constituting my world chopped and changed at a rapid rate, probably more than at any other time since I’d been at school. Looking back, a hell of a lot of living – and, in some sad cases, dying – was condensed into those five years, and if it had all been prophesised beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

Gazing into a crystal ball has rarely been less attractive than at the moment, mind; quite frankly, given the opportunity I think I’d pass. If this non-year has taught us anything it’s that the future isn’t always worth waiting for. Perhaps if crystal balls could show what’s gone rather than what’s to come, maybe they’d be more intriguing; the past – even the recent past – has a habit of being as unfathomably unreal and unpredictable as the future. Anyone who has ever perused old diaries unread since they were written can often struggle to recall half of the events documented; I remember digging out some diaries from less than ten years before when researching my book, ‘Looking for Alison’, and I genuinely couldn’t remember so much of what I’d written about actually happening – as though some gremlin had spent many a mischievous night rewriting the daily entries as I slept just to f**k my head up.

It’s possible the absence of recall when revisiting journals of a recent vintage wasn’t so much a by-product of age, but an indication of the speed at which life had been lived in the five years since the last line I read had been penned. Blurs are hard to catch and preserve in amber-coated memory. Lest we forget, it’s an accepted phenomenon that time appears to pass faster as the years going by start to pile up, just as it does for the busy man occupied by an activity whilst simultaneously moving at a snail’s pace for the bored man twiddling his thumbs. Be that as it may, why take five? Why not? Let’s be honest, the number 5 makes a refreshing change from the number 19 at the moment, anyway. And guess what – this very blog turns five in December; those of you who were present at the birth may well be hard-pressed to believe we’ve been here that long, but that’s time for you – or five years.

Even if some of the subjects discussed in the earliest posts remain perennial bugbears or have simply become much worse, there are certain aspects of life in 2015 that seem so dim and distant from the perspective of 2020 that it’s difficult to discern they were that recent. My opinions may have altered on some subjects (and rightly so, for rigidly immovable opinions are rarely the sign of an inquiring mind); but I’ve not retrospectively altered anything said in any past post to fit a current point of view – unlike Dominic Cummings with his online jottings (allegedly). Sure, a lot of horrible things happened in 2015 – as they always do; but how can 2015 not seem like a great place to be when lined-up alongside 2020? In 2015, the rocket-ship on the launchpad was Apollo 11; today, it’s Apollo 13. Bowie’s ‘Ziggy’ prologue would have had an unsettling relevance had he written it in 2015 instead of 1972, so one doesn’t even have to fall into the trap of becoming misty-eyed over some faraway year from decades ago when confronted by the God-awful here and now; five years will do.

© The Editor

FINGS AIN’T WOT THEY USED T’BE

wellerI remember way back in the 1980s, seeing the distinguished thespian Michael Horden on the BBC’s ‘Breakfast Time’; although known to my generation as the narrator of the original series of ‘Paddington’, he was present in his capacity as a respected Ak-tor and bemoaned the dumbing down of the English language in terms of Americanised pronunciation. The word he seemed especially annoyed by was the way in which ‘Super’ was no longer being pronounced in his own archaic pre-war RADA way, i.e. ‘S’yupah’. He was most insistent his way was the right way. What the late Mr Horden would think of changes in pronunciation since the 80s would be interesting, though the English language (and the variance in pronunciation from one generation to the next) has never stood still.

When it comes to the centuries prior to the invention of recorded sound, we are dependent on writers that reproduced slang and common colloquialisms of their era within the pages of their novels. Dickens regularly put cockney lingo in the mouths of his characters, with his earlier works rooted in the late Georgian society he had known as a child. Both ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and his short story collection, ‘Sketches by Boz’, were written and published before Victoria came to the throne; the latter is an invaluable verbal portrait of the way in which London’s poverty class spoke in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, but ‘Pickwick’ itself features the celebrated Sam Weller, who pronounces his own name as Sam Veller. Pronouncing W as V sounds utterly alien to modern ears, but its usage in early Dickens implies this was the cockney speech he had grown up with, one that may well have extended into the twentieth century.

Unlike the French, who regard their language as a precious museum artefact that has to be preserved in amber, the English have always spoken a language with immense flexibility and a willing susceptibility to change. One only has to think of Chaucer’s Middle English or Shakespearean English to realise the changes that have taken place over the last six-hundred years, with each influx of ‘immigrants’ having its own impact on the language, whether the Danes, the Saxons or the Normans. The development of the English language into the one spoken within these Isles today has a history far too long and winding to fully explore here, but it is worth remembering that the journey remains an ongoing one.

It is thanks to recorded sound that we can hear the changes that have taken place over just the last sixty-seventy years. The vaguely comical Noel Coward form of Received Pronunciation that is commonplace in British movies from the 30s-50s was also adopted by the BBC and is still associated with the Corporation, even though few of its announcers and presenters speak that way today. One only has to listen to broadcasts from as recent as the 1970s to hear the distinct difference between then and now.

Anyone this century who has retained the mellifluous richness of the old speech, from the much-missed art critic Brian Sewell to cricket commentator Henry Blofeld and the surprisingly young Tory MP (and ‘Minister for the eighteenth century’) Jacob Rees Mogg, has been sold as an eccentric merely because of how they speak, the smooth velvety clarity of their diction harking back to a long-gone age that can now only be celebrated with post-modern irony. The working-class revolution of the 60s, as reflected in the overnight success of ‘Coronation Street’ and the novelty of The Beatles choosing not to eschew their Liverpudlian accents, has had ramifications for speech that continue to echo throughout the lingo fifty years later.

This week, linguists at the University of York have published a report called The Sounds of the Future. In it, they predict certain current forms of pronunciation will vanish within the next half-century, though the panicky manner of reportage in the likes of the Daily Telegraph (all the fault of multiculturalism, apparently) fails to acknowledge that it would be highly odd, going by past experience, were the language to not change whatsoever by 2066. In only the last fifteen-twenty years the pernicious influence of so-called Estuary English has had a massive impact on speech, especially in media circles. The execrable ‘Votin’ promo ad for the Remain camp in the EU Referendum and posh boys such as Cameron and Osborne dropping their Gs at the end of words are highly visible examples of this trend.

Over roughly the same time period, there has been an undeniable development in slang amongst the young, which owes its presence to the prevalence of white teenagers aping the Jamaican-derived patois of black youth, something that has also been adopted by British-born Asian teenagers from the 90s onwards. These phrasings weren’t present during my own adolescence in the 80s, so I can at least pin it down to the last twenty years; the appearance of comedy character Ali G at the dawn of the twenty-first century was one of the first media figures to bring this linguistic change to a wider audience.

The University of York report predicts the ‘th’ sound will be gone within fifty years, mainly because they claim it’s hard for foreigners living here to pronounce; but the title of this post is lifted from a stage musical produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop as far back as 1960, so predictions that ‘f’ will in many cases supersede ‘th’ is hardly anything new. Text-speak is also held up as one of the guilty parties responsible for the upcoming changes, though as Text-speak is a written as opposed to a spoken slang, it’s hard to see it causing a large-scale overhaul of common speech.

The report predicts regional dialects are also destined to die out, but regional dialects themselves don’t stand still either. Many people from parts of Yorkshire today would probably struggle to decipher recordings of elderly Yorkshire folk from, say, the 40s and 50s; my own maternal grandparents (from Huddersfield) would often slip into ancient colloquialisms that I didn’t always understand. And there are certain regional accents I can’t say I’d miss if they vanished for good, to be honest. But this is what happens with the English language; it keeps moving. And that’s what makes it arguably the richest and most fascinating language on the planet.

© The Editor

THE BRITISH PLAY

WillThat the final visit to British shores of President Obama as leader of ‘the free world’ should fall on a weekend when our nation marks the 400th anniversary of its greatest writer’s passing is one of those neat strokes of fate, coming at a moment when the country is perched perilously on the crossroads between alleged integration and alleged isolation. Obama’s unsurprising pro-EU stance, whether his sentiments were given a canny nudge by Dave or not, have proved to be a sly stroke on the part of the Remain camp; regardless of his fairly unremarkable record in his day-job, Obama is a popular figure here, and no amount of crying foul play by the Brexit bunch will really alter that.

Neither Boris nor Farage have issued anything beyond petulant retorts to Obama’s veiled threat as to America’s position should the UK vote ‘no’. There is a certain irony, however, that such a professional patriot as Nigel should possess a frankly flimsy grasp of history. Accusing the incumbent President of being the most anti-British tenant of the White House is somewhat curious considering that just over 200 years ago one of his predecessors – James Madison – declared war on the US’s former colonial overlord. The War of 1812 may now be regarded as a footnote to the far greater Napoleonic conflicts by European historians, but it surely represents a bleaker low point in the Special Relationship than Obama indicating Britain will be shoved to the back of the trading queue if she chooses to retreat from the brotherhood of her nearest neighbours.

I at least expected a myriad of quotes from ‘Henry V’ to constitute the Brexit response to Obama this weekend. Regularly plucked from the text to provoke patriotism at best and jingoism at worst, the words the Bard placed in the mouth of the victor of Agincourt have become a default mechanism for the nation when it perceives itself as being under threat. And there is, of course, a case of the pot calling the kettle black in America preaching European harmony and anti-isolationism when it has spent so much of its existence masquerading as a country breaking with traditional Old World aggression by avoiding excessive participation in world affairs – on the surface, at least. A cursory glance at an enlightening article which appeared online a year ago reveals the US has enjoyed a mere total of 21 years of peace since 1776. In fact, America has never lasted so much as a solitary decade without being involved in some military conflict or another from the moment when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and I hate the idle pleasure of these days’; so said Richard III in the hands of Shakespeare’s quill. While the gung-ho war-cry of Henry V may well be evoked to galvanise those who feel Britain’s precious sovereignty is forever in peril from some Brussels directive whilst we remain chained to treaties signed in the 80s and 90s, one could argue a withdrawal from the continent places us back in the role of detached observer on European activities, cast in the role of villain, mistrusted anew by the advocates of the great European project and consequently reinforcing our geographical separation from the mainland. This wasn’t a problem back in the days of the Empire, and we still have a network of connections to our ex-imperial possessions in the Far East, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent that, historically, should have precedence over the neighbours we’ve spent most of our lifetime fighting. After all, we only have a land border with just one country – the Republic of Ireland – which is itself further from Europe than even we are in terms of miles.

The perceived importance of a European Economic Community, not to mention a military one, was passionately promoted by Churchill even before such institutions came into being, but it was Sir Winston’s misfortune to be born too early to participate in the construction of the initial incarnation of the operation. The historical and sentimental ties with the Commonwealth somewhat got in the way of Europe’s post-war destination from Britain’s point of view, leaving the French and the Germans to take control and relegate us to a permanent periphery, even when Ted Heath achieved his long-term ambition of gaining us a place at the table in 1972. Lest we forget, the formation of the Common Market (along with NATO) took place while Europe remained divided between East and West, but the fall of the Berlin Wall, pushing back the borders of democratic Europe to the edges of Russia, changed the makeup of the EU, and the Referendum of June 23 this year will decide our role in an organisation that is a radically different animal to the one it was in 1975.

The Brexit camp contains those who recognise the differences between the modern-day EU and the old EEC as well as those who have always been opposed to any integration with Europe, while even the Remain gang recognise something has to change in order for our continued membership to be something worth fighting for. President Obama’s sentiments are obviously influenced by American interests, but his intervention probably hasn’t helped make the minds up of any don’t knows out there. As with a General Election, notions of doing something in the country’s best interests will largely be supplanted by individual concerns. As someone whose shopping is mostly done online, I would begrudge the addition of import tax on buying overseas goods that EU countries are currently exempt from if we leave, whilst a friend has already decided she will vote ‘out’ due to EU interference in the e-cigarette issue. I suspect this will be a pattern we will all follow come June, and Obama’s opinion will count for little when we visit our nearest polling station.

© The Editor