Tag Archives: culture

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A couple more points, if you please, about the swearing in Black Watch

In my essay for the Sunday Herald I made the case for the necessity of the swearing and offensive chatter that makes up much of the dialogue in Black Watch:

They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.

Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.

The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries.  The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!”  He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914).  In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.

To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre.  One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before.  The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.

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Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom

A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006.  What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on.  Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.

Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom

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Pop Pairs

I was listening Magic 105.4 earlier.  They played Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna.  The girl in the song pleads with her Dad to let her see someone he disapproves of.

Next in the playlist was Uptown Girl by Billy Joel.  A young man laments that the woman he has fallen for is from a different social class.

It occurs to me that these two songs are Pop Pairs.  They could be two views on the same relationship.

My sense is that you could probably make a Pop Pair out of any two songs where the singer declares their love for someone else.  But the really great pop pairs will be two songs that present two sides of a less conventional relationship.  For example, Young Girl by Gary Puckett, paired with Born Too Late by the Poni-Tails; or Money Money Money by ABBA, paired with Gold Digger by Kanye West.

Alternatively, where the sentiment is quite specific:  The particular question asked by the Shirelles in Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is answered quite specifically by the Waterboys  in How Long Will I Love You?

Eternal Flame by the Bangles paired with Firestarter by Prodigy.

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Fictionalised Assassinations

I wonder what Lord Bell thinks of Sony’s decision to cancel screening of ‘The Interview’?

Earlier this year, the Tory peer said that author Hilary Mantel should be investigated by the police after she wrote a short story called (and about) ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – August 6th 1983′.

It was a silly thing to say but free speech groups like English PEN (for whom I work) cexpressed concern at his words. Artists should be free to imagine and to fantasise, and equating a fictional murder of a head of state with actual incitement is not only fallacious, but gives dictators around the world yet another reason to shut down any kind of expression that portrays them in an impregnable light.

Which brings us on to The Interview, a comedy film in which Seth Rogan and James Franco star as two journalists who set out to assassinate Kim Jong Un.  The government of North Korea called the film “an act of war” and threatened “bitter reprisals”.  This week, Sony pictures announced that it would be withdrawing the release of The Interview  after pro-regime activists calling themselves Guardians of the Peace hacked Sony’s computer systems, leaked embarrassing e-mails, and threatened attacks on cinemas showing the film.

Now, Lord Bell’s suggestion that Mantel receive a visit from the police is not equivalent to North Korean activists threatening violence.  But Lord Bell’s idea – that fictionalised assassination of an already dead Maggie Thatcher is incitement, is surely equivalent to the idea that ‘The Interview’ is incitement.  Of course, I think both ideas are false… but when a member of the House of Lords peddles the first idea, it rather gives credence to the second. Continue reading Fictionalised Assassinations

Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine

Off Black Magazine launches today: fashion, arts and culture.

WE ARE DRAWN TO THE EXPERIMENTAL, STRONG, EQUAL AND FUN. WE PROMOTE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION FOR ALL.

Me too.  I was delighted to be asked to write for the launch issue (which takes ‘The Body’ as its theme) on the censorship of art and culture.  My article takes in erotica, Google algorithms, 3D models of vaginas, Instagram’s terms & conditions, and Rupert Bear’s penis.

Putin is sanitising the voice of ordinary Russians

Vladimir Putin has this week signed into a law some measures to ban swearing in films, books and music.  Films with obscene content will not be granted a distribution certificate and exisiting books and music with foul language will have to be sold in special wrapping.

I spoke to Alison Flood of the Guardian about the new law, and what it says about the state of Russian politics:

Writers’ group English PEN has already condemned the move. Robert Sharp, its head of campaigns, says: “Swear words exist in every language and are part of everyday speech. Russian artists will no longer be able reflect genuine, everyday speech. Instead, they will have to sacrifice authenticity in order to please a committee of censors. This new law sends the signal that law-makers want to sanitise and silence the voice of ordinary Russians.”

In recent years, Sharp adds, we have witnessed Russia’s slow slide into authoritarianism, with impunity for the killers of Anna Politkovskaya, the prosecution of Pussy Riot, and the ban on discussing homosexuality. “These things have all squeezed the space for free speech in Russia. The government claims it is ‘protecting and developing culture’, but the effect will be to ensure that culture becomes staid, uniform and boring.”

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#Britawards vs #BBCFolkAwards

How to describe the particular type of nausea induced by last might’s Brit Awards? It was not so much the music itself – bands like Bastille and Rudimental are producing catchy, modern pop, and I loved the choreography in Bruno Mars’ performance of ‘Treasure’. Rather, it was everything else about the event itself: The arrogant, cursory acceptance speech by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner; Harry Styles’ joke “what did we win” when he arrived late on stage to collect an award; and presenter James Corden’s constant references to people taking cocaine in the loos. The entire programme seemed to be channelling a drug bore, who thinks he is being the life of the party when in fact he is rambling and obnoxious.
Continue reading #Britawards vs #BBCFolkAwards

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Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Last week The Bookseller reported on a furore in the world of e-Book publishing. Erotic self-published novels appeared next to children’s literature in the WH Smith online store, which is powered by Kobo.

This looks to me like a technical mistake, but the occurence provoked outrage. The store was taken offline for a while and many books were removed from sale. I spoke to The Bookseller about the controversy: Continue reading Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Should Schools Ban Slang?

The headteacher at the Harris Academy in London has banned the pupils from using slang.  This is not a new thing:  Earlier this year, a school in Sheffield did the same thing, the Manchester Academy in Moss Side introduced a similar policy in 2008… and its exam results increased the following year.

UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss the issue.  You can listen to my contribution by following this link, or via the SoundCloud player below. Continue reading Should Schools Ban Slang?

Malala-Yousafzai

Why I am glad that Malala did not win the Nobel Prize

I’m glad that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is not because I do not applaud her bravery and support her fantastic campaigning work. Rather, I worry about the effect of thrusting the prize onto someone so young.

Previous Nobel Laureates have reported that winning the prize is incredibly disruptive to their career. Peter Higgs, who was awarded the Chemistry prize last week, tried to escape media inquiries. But they tracked him down eventually,

Our media is full of stories of child prodigies pressurised into excellence and unhappiness. Child actors regularly seem to end up in rehab units, and the career trajectory of child pop-stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus makes everyone uneasy.  We angst over the plight of Royal babies, born into incredible wealth but no privacy. Continue reading Why I am glad that Malala did not win the Nobel Prize