Morrissey, Scandal, Backlashes and Bandwagons

Womans Aid

It’s all so inevitable, isn’t it? A big scandal breaks, there’s a backlash, a lot of people jump on the bandwagon, a witch-hunt ensues, it all gets confused and in the end nothing much changes. I’m talking about the whole exploitation and molestation of women subject matter brought to you now in glorious technicolor and with full Hollywood treatment. I was going to say it’s big news because it’s been made sexy. Which is quite ironic as it’s all to do with sex. Well – sort of. It’s that kind of seedy sex where one party has the greater interest and power. Okay that’s the scandal part. And typical of when most big scandals break ordinary people who’ve suffered under the prevailing regime over the years take a few minutes out from their ordinary lives to say ‘thanks for noticing, now what are you going to do about it?’

Okay, change and action is pretty difficult. Much easier to have a backlash, bandwagon and witch-hunt. And as this is going to be staged by the creative industry headed by Hollywood it’s going to have a fair bit of stardust sprinkled on it. Unfortunately though wherever there’s the old razzle dazzle there’s going to be fantasy and dodgy testimony.

I have to be careful here as anyone who dares suggest that every single allegation isn’t 100% true is going to get shouted down and pilloried. I present my first witness in the form of Morrissey. Okay he can be a silly old sod whose desire to deliver a controversial sound bite is an almost pathological compulsion but he’s hardly ever 100% wrong. This time he’s firing out a few home truths about the world of the stage, film, music and performing arts in general. It’s a strange parallel universe where everyday rules don’t apply. So much of it is based on creating a dream, a fantasy, an ideal of beauty where pretty young girls and boys are presented to us as latter day gods and goddesses. And it doesn’t matter if the screen persona is based on an Oscar-worthy ugly-make-over, the ‘real’ impossibly beautiful alter egos will be there on the red carpet* making mere mortals swoon and instilling a feeling of desperate aspiration in the starry-eyed. Desperate being the key word here. On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams thousands apply but only a lucky, talented few get chosen. Lucky? Talented? Really? It’s such an old adage which probably existed in the days of ancient Greek theatre. ‘How on earth did he/she get the role? Must be sleeping with the producer… ‘ Being accused of which – with or without any foundation – probably being the main reason for the silence of so many actors (or ‘actresses’, if you prefer) for such a long time.

Just because it’s a truth universally acknowledged does it have to be that way? Of course not. But we women have been up against it (figuratively and literally) for millennia now. We’ve all been convinced that our worth lies predominately in being pretty and beautiful. The vast majority of painters and sculptors were male so the myth was perpetuated and that carried on to the days when pictures started moving with an even smaller proportion of women being in the creative driving seat.

Therein lies the circular problem – women are these beautiful creatures who are inspirational muses so they can’t be expected to create works of art. So then generation upon generation of young girls have a limited number of role models. The only inspiration and aspiration is to look young and pretty. And so it continues…

Funnily enough Hollywood hasn’t always been like that. Strong women like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford** Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich ruled the screen in the 1930/40s. Of course they were beautiful and their place was strictly in front of the camera but they were so much more than simpering ingenue/sex bomb/old crone. This had much to do with macho men with too much testosterone being engaged elsewhere (war, for example) and the influence of the immigrant European male – possibly gay but at any rate more open to the idea of a strong woman – calling the artistic shots. Ironically, as time progressed attitudes didn’t. I’m old enough to remember the films of the 70/80s with their depressing parade of hot young starlets whose basic requirements were to ‘get them off’ and ‘get them out’ and when an ‘interesting’ female character was a crazed psycopath. Flash forward and with kick-ass heroines and more complex characterisations the hegemony part is perhaps better but to find out the behind-the-scenes scenes don’t follow the same script is a real kick in the un-veneered teeth of all us ‘ordinary’ women.

So am I glad to have my Hollywood sisters leading the revolt against sexism and unfurling the flag of feminism? Hmm – they certainly generate a lot more hashtag action than the sexually exploited girls of Rotherham (and many other UK cities) ever could. Just as long as the interest and momentum becomes a sea change for the many and not the few and doesn’t go the way of so many other social media trends. Anyone remember #bringbackourgirls ? Or here’s a thought – maybe we should stop looking through the skewed prism of Hollywood and the world of celebrity when we’re looking for role models and advice on how to live our lives. We always suspected it was built on  beautiful lies and now we have the very ugly truth.

So what are my words of advice? Don’t get dragged down into the mire with witch-hunts, knee jerk reactions and desperate attempts to get attention by adopting a label or a hashtag. If you’ve suffered abuse get in touch with the authorities or an agency which can help. If you’re one of the many who’ve experienced low level ‘bothering’  – yes, it is bad and it is annoying but don’t waste precious resources and media coverage by confusing it with serious assault and abuse. Instead – campaign in the real world and help the socially and economically disadvantaged (women and men!) deal with sexual exploitation. And if you’re anywhere near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder – be prepared to struggle and fight for what those higher up take for granted. Forget about Hollywood (and the theatre and the music world) for a while – they’ll tell us loudly enough when they’ve sorted themselves out.

* Little-black-dress-chic to show solidarity with ‘ordinary women’ leaves me less than convinced. Personally, I’m waiting for the day when boiler suits and balaclavas (a la Pussy Riot) make an appearance on the red carpet!


Working to end sexual violence:


And for more on the female image, goddesses and consensual love check out Bettany Hughes‘ excellent Venus Uncovered on the BBC iplayer and her accompanying Guardian article.

**Also, it might still be available on the BBC iplayer (or elsewhere) – Feud: Bette and Joan. Great performances but incredibly depressing – and not only because of the hammered-home message that it was a complete scandal that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were thrown on the scrapheap merely because they had the temerity to get older. No – it was the misery porn wallowing, the numerous ‘alternative facts ‘and the continual portrayal of these two marvellous women as victims that left me feeling a little queasy. Far better to watch films from their heyday which offer pretty serviceable blueprints for being a strong woman.



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Thanks Nanny – what a state!

Harry LauderI have to say I was a little disconcerted the other night when I saw Glenn Campbell on Reporting Scotland holding aloft an Aldi two litre bottle of cider (the brand name is Taurus for all of you who want to grab a pre prohibition bargain). It wasn’t so much that he was outing my not-so-guilty and not-so-secret pleasure for a Saturday night in front of Strictly. No, the real shocker was the news the price would be hiked from a very reasonable £2 to a frankly quite ridiculous £5. Do I have a drink problem? Well, I do now – thanks to the Scottish Government getting the go-ahead to impose minimum pricing on alcohol.

‘But it will save lives and help the NHS‘ chorused Nicola Sturgeon and her chatterati pals who I can just imagine in Bute House toasting their success, no doubt with a nice little drop of malt or a glass of claret or some other reassuringly expensive drink which will remain unaffected by the ruling. Like a bunch of Marie Antoinettes without the intelligence or the dress sense. ‘Let them eat cake’ indeed – which brings me to my next point…

Obesity and Type II Diabetes make up the huge disgusting elephant in the Scottish NHS waiting room. But will the SG introduce a fat tax in order to address the problem? Probably not. Will they even re-direct resources to help promote a healthy lifestyle in poorer areas of Scotland? Well, if they haven’t done it by now…  And do you know what the most scandalous/ironic aspect of this whole debacle is? Most people think it’s a tax. It’s not – the extra money will go to the producer/retailer and will not go to making some magic dust to sprinkle over the ugly gaping wound of alcoholism.

Yes, that’s right. I’m not a heartless bitch whose only concern is getting my cheap cider. I care about alcoholism, all kinds of addiction – whether it be junk food or crack cocaine –  and the poverty trap which nurtures the hopelessness that sparks the desire for these things in the first place. In another life I was an alcohol counsellor and I know that people don’t become (and remain) alcoholics merely because there are cheap deals available. Alcoholics are addicts, and addicts will get their fix – whatever the price.

You can probably tell – as a responsible drinker with not a huge disposable income – I’m not best pleased. But apart from it being a hypocritical and ineffectual sticking-plaster for the ills of a very sick (in the most literal sense) nation it kind of screws up the whole idea of a free market economy.

So well done, nanny state for making both Adam Smith and Harry Lauder spin in their graves! Slainte!! *

* If you want a translation I believe you can tweet Alex Salmond but there may be a delay of a day or so…

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Practically Perfect English

Here’s my new English language teaching/learning site. It’s still in its early stages but I’m adding to it all the time – so please keep visiting!


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Flying the Flag… for what, exactly?


I’m always a bit wary about getting involved in the politics of another country. In truth, I’m pretty wary about getting involved in the politics of my own country these days given the online echo chambers if you agree with someone or the vitriol and shouting-down if you don’t. Family across the road from us have no such qualms however. So much so they bypass the online and visibly nail their colours to the mast. The other week this translated as digging out their trusty Saltire flag and flying it from the battlements of their suburban semi-detached. I guess this action was in solidarity with their Catalan brethren, given that the flag-waving coincided with the day of the independence referendum held in Catalonia. Which made me think – I wonder if they know anyone from that part of the world? I do – and by chance my friend from Barcelona was staying with us when it was all kicking off in her home city. Actually it wasn’t complete chance – she was keen to get a break from the disruption, the ill feeling and the pressure to ‘choose a side’.

Sounds familiar? Yes, we experienced all of that three years ago in Scotland. That’s where the similarity ends though. The Spanish government is ridiculously heavy handed and show a scary lack of evolution from the days of Franco. To think the two situations are similar is like comparing the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff with that of Terry and June!

Of course the staggeringly huge difference between Scotland/UK and Catalonia/Spain is the historical timeline. The Franco regime came to an end just over forty years ago and – as recent events prove – his influence lives on. If you want oppression, subjugation and bloody battles over here you have to dig out the history books or download Braveheart.

So as the Catalonia/Spain situation rumbles on we can probably expect the old Saltire to make a few more appearances across the road. I’ll be polite though and smile to myself as I’m reminded of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when poor wee Mary McGregor (Joyce Emily in the book) goes off to join the Spanish Civil War but is confused about what side she should be fighting on. Of course she didn’t have the benefit of a world of knowledge and historical fact at her fingertips; and the only brainwashing came in the form of one silly and deluded woman. Muriel Spark making the point that politics – especially those of another country – are complicated but a bit of flag waving can cover up a fair bit of ignorance.


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Myth and Mourning

Can it really be twenty years since the death of Diana? If you were a full grown adult at the time you might respond with the cliched ‘it only seems like yesterday’ because that what happens with time – it gets more fleeting the older you get. It also has something to do with denial at getting older. You don’t want to acknowledge that so much time has passed. If you were one of the people who wept and wailed at the time you might welcome the distance the years bring – in an emotional sense, certainly.

It hasn’t taken the full twenty years to feel a collective queasy embarrassment at the whole spectacle though. Those rumblings started before the floral funeral carpet wilted so we’ve had almost that whole period for psychologists, sociologists, historians and writers to analyse and pick apart the whole phenomenon. None more excellent than the recent essay by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian. With her customary surgical precision she dissects who Diana was, how she was and why she was. The otherworldly is alluded to with Diana the last in a line of doomed sacrificial princesses cast from both fairy tales and historical reality. She delves into the psyches of Diana and the other main players but finds – as royals and aristocrats – there isn’t much depth to delve into. The main player herself confused and having to create a winning persona with help from a selection of advisers. It’s a staggering piece with fascinating observations about how we mourn and how that’s changed (wear bright colours and be happy) and our attitude towards death (still a naive non-acceptance). But are we any closer to understanding the actions of the crowd at that heady time?. Understanding is probably not relevant though as the crowd here is cast from folklore and can be – by turn – the baying mob or weeping mourners.

In reality and back in 1997 there were no such binary choices. If you weren’t a weeping mourner your reactive profile category would vary from mild sadness to intense frustration at the Media overload. The public perception of the individual was pretty binary though. If you weren’t part of the hysterical outpouring of grief you had to keep it quiet lest the weeping mourners became the baying mob from folklore.  These days though – you want binary? Spend a few minutes with the various Diana trends on Twitter (today will be the worst) and you’ll be able to view both extremes.

For myself – I was definitely in the mild sadness/intense frustration category. In the subsequent years however I found myself wanting to make sense of it all. Not the ‘why, oh why did she have to die?’ but rather that many people just couldn’t accept that fame, status, beauty, money and a kind heart weren’t enough to make a cloak of invincibility for her. And the whole thing of looking for a saviour to protect us from the world’s ills. Like some kind of super hero/heroine. That continues today with people proclaiming that the world would be a better place had she lived? Really?

I managed to work out my own particular fascination with the phenomenon by giving the woman herself a new life and a new persona in a work of fiction. She had to be fictional as I could never claim to have known her – actually, spiritually or emotionally, unlike so many others did.  Maybe I’m atoning for my mild sadness and intense frustration, who knows?


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Fringeschmerz! Many happy returns?

So that’s the Festival over with for another year. Of course, when we say the Festival we actually mean The Fringe – as that’s the part most people are interested in and it’s the reason why the population of Edinburgh doubles during August. Actually that’s an old stat and – going by my own personal opinion – the numbers had to be far greater than that this year. Admittedly it probably looked a lot worse depending on what part of the city you ventured into with much of the Old Town being a no-go area. Glimpsing the seething crowd mass crammed into the High Street around the Fringe office gave me a very queasy feeling indeed. But luckily I was well out of it, witnessing the carnage from the top deck of a number 33 bus.

So why’s the Fringe so popular? Well, it’s ‘a thing’ now apparently. I realised it was ‘a thing’ when The Sun reported on it and BBC Breakfast showed an interest. Along with other ‘things’ like other festivals, and city breaks, and days at the races and afternoon tea – it’s something to do. Or – more to the point – it’s something we’re told we should do. It’s the opposite of niche or having a particular interest or discovering something for yourself.

At this point – and to celebrate seventy years of the Festival/Fringe – let me take you on a personal journey…

First years were the late 70s and early 80s with church-hall productions of Shakespeare and the Greek classics; a lot of Brechtian (actual and influenced) theatre and probably too many torch singers channeling Piaf and Brel. Memorable highlights: Learning from Quentin Crisp how to cultivate a lifestyle; being chilled to the bone by Patrick Malahide in his one-man, three-hour-long play about cannibalism; gasping with laughter and almost believing that John Bardon was the incarnation of Max Miller. Biggest regret: Not experiencing even one of the 24 hours of The Warp.

Late 80s: The classic days of the official Festival half-price ticket van at the bottom of The Mound. Memorable highlights: a very gory Macbeth in German with The King’s orchestra pit used as a dumping trench for bloodied body parts. A lot of Steven Berkoff – the man himself on the official and excellent productions of East, West and Greek on the Fringe. Experiencing sublime camp classicism in the shapes of Julian Clary and Lily Savage. Seeing pre-Hollywood Mike Myers and Denis Leary (not really highlights but thought I’d just mention). Biggest regrets: missing Nureyev‘s swan song and The Fall/Michael Clarke mash-up that was I am Curious Orange.

Mid 90s – 00s: The rise and rise of the comedy behemoth when ‘the Fringe as a trade fair TV producers and PR agents’ ultimately succeeded in its bid to become the only show in town. That said – it was nice to see The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh before they got on telly… or is it just nice to say I saw them before they got on telly… ?

00s – present day: Okay – I haven’t always been faithful to the Festival/Fringe. There have been long gaps throughout the years – due to logistics of traveling and residency and also due to something I like to call ‘Fringeschmerz‘. Hey, it’s a thing! I just named it. It’s meant to describe an overwhelming feeling of jadedness and cynicism.  However – around five years ago I discovered the Free Fringe and it was a minor revelation for me. Here was experimentation, here was risk taking, here was a half-empty room with confused people in it. It was like going back to the days of my classic Fringe experiences! If you want to know what my modern era highlights are – read the reviews elsewhere on this blog.

But here we go – nothing lasts forever and things change. The whole story of the Free Fringe is a textbook study of political infighting, power grabs and fragile egos all nicely nurtured throughout the year and brought to bloom in the Edinburgh August hothouse. Just Google and you can read all about it. That’s them but what about me? For various reasons this year I couldn’t take part in my usual (like as in the past four years) Free Fringe going frenzy. I managed to see a handful of shows which were fine and I reviewed them accordingly but I saw around the equivalent number of other shows and they were meh at best and dire at worst. I thought it best to take the stance of ‘if you can’t say something nice about someone…’ And of course there’s that whole thing about trampling on a fledgling dream but honestly these guys aren’t fledglings – more like tough old birds who’ve been flapping around the circuit for years now.

So why do old hands do the Free Fringe? Here’s the economics bit: the acts who appear at the big paid-ticket venues – like the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon – are essentially fast-tracking themselves to bankruptcy by the time the venue, their agent and all the myriad parts of their PR machine take their cut. Contrast that with the comparatively modest expenses of the Free Fringe and getting to keep all of the proceeds when the hat is passed round at the end. However many of the Free Fringe regulars now have agents and PR teams to support so the ‘bucket speech’ now goes along the lines of ‘you’d pay at least £15 for a show like this at the Pleasance/Gilded Balloon/Underbelly so give me that amount’. ‘Er, no – I can’t/wouldn’t pay that amount. That’s why I’ve come to the Free Fringe’. Maybe it was just me this year and hopefully the Free Fringe is going to get its groove back next year. It can’t just be the poor envious relation to the fat cat Fringe, expecting increasingly bigger scraps from the table.

So what’s my marvelous vision for the future of the Festival/Fringe/Free Fringe? Well, the Fringe as comedy shop window for those who can afford it and don’t want anything particularly original is never going to change, given the massive power of the main venues; so it can continue being ‘a thing’ and people can tick it off on their tourist ‘to do’ lists. The Free Fringe can – and does – get a share of that market, but lose the inferiority complex, eh? The official Festival is the esoteric elderly relative who swans in and out, avoiding any political spats and doesn’t cause any trouble. On a practical note – the action has to break free from the Old Town stranglehold and in particular the kettling hot spots in the High Street and at the bottom of the Mound. It’s dangerous, makes the centre of town out of bounds to residents and reinforces the idea that the Festival is strictly for tourists only. Some Fringe shows have ventured out to other areas including – gasp – Leith! But I can remember going to tiny venues there and all over the city back in the day. But then it all comes back to money and whether it’s ‘a thing’.  I suppose traveling on a bus to go to a church hall to watch a production of Marat/Sade where the performers outnumber the audience isn’t going to make economic sense. But hey, it was a thing – my thing!

Happy 70th!




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Bob Blackman’s Tray?

During the inspired lunacy that is Bob Blackman’s Tray? main man Johnny Sorrow notes – nay, wails – that you wouldn’t get this kind of thing at The Pleasance or at any of the other silly-money-charging big-boy venues up the road. Quite refreshing then as there seems to be a growing trend for Free Fringe acts to claim they’re every bit as good – and as bland – as their paid-ticket counterparts so ‘gimme, gimme, gimme £15-20!!’. Such logic of economics or equal-footing comparisons simply don’t exist in the world of BBT. In fact a lot of things don’t exist in that strange near-mythical world: PR, marketing, advertising, flyers, posters, agents for example.

Refreshing, maybe, for us jaded old cynics who every August look with tired eyes on the stack of mediocrity that’s hyped up, packaged and presented to those who haven’t got the time or can’t be bothered to seek out something truly original. But what about the BBT guys themselves who steadfastly refuse to play the promotion game? A case of ‘build it and they will come… ‘

And that brings me to my big schizophrenic relationship with BBT. On one hand I want to tell everyone about the magical experience and tell them to go see but on the other hand I would be horrified if I was turned away from a house-full performance or worse still had to squeeze in with people who didn’t ‘get it’. There’s something about that strange mix of half empty house end-of-the-pier show desperation and nostalgic kids’ TV a la Crackerjack! presided over by a strange man in a blue balaclava and sunglasses that’s uniquely compelling. If BBT was packaged up, promoted and presented to the ‘right’ people they would storm it and be appearing on a telly near you. But then – as Johnny Sorrow says – they just want people like that Malcolm McIntyre these days. Which just goes to show how gloriously out of touch Johnny is. Yes – okay – I’ve decided: I don’t want BBT to change. Let’s keep it as our little secret, shall we?




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