Tag Archives: culture


Photography Imbued with Sadness

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading Photography Imbued with Sadness


We should rethink ‘NSFW’

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.


Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’

An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.

I spoke to the Huffington Post about the issues raised for English PEN: Continue reading Quoted in the Huffington Post discussing ‘Homegrown’


How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*

Hooray for five ninths of the Supreme Court of the United States of America!  Today the Court ruled that bans on same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Same-sex marriage, which was already legal in many states, is now legal throughout the USA.

Blogger and gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan has returned to blogging to welcome the news.  He’s been agitating for this since 1989.

Opponents of same sex marriage often claim that it will somehow undermine straight marriage.  That’s nonsense.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  Here’s why. Continue reading How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*


Flags Matter

Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning.  Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War.  Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit.  But that is disingenuous.  The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people.  Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“.   The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag.  A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.

On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster).  His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.

Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags.  He also explains why we should care.

A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”



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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Continue reading Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine