Author Archives: J. C. Greenway

About J. C. Greenway

J. C. Greenway lives in Japan, she works in the Fiction Department, probably doing some mechanical job on a novel-writing machine

Staunch supporters?

As you may have noticed from a recent post, ten minutes hate is aware there is an election on the horizon. And while this half of the writing team is quite relieved to be on the opposite side of the world from all the fuss, behind the scenes emails have been flying about the thorny topic of who, if anyone, to support.

My colleague, Mr Maguire, was threatening to make his decision after reading all the major parties’ manifestos. For which endeavour we must surely thank him. I can think of quite a few better ways to spend time in a favourite reading chair. Fortunately, for those of us without that level of dedication, the internet is here to save the day.

I Side With will ask you an array of questions – the answers to which can be very nuanced if you so choose – you aren’t hampered by binary responses. Then it will tell you the party that matches your views on the issues you hold dearest.

Now I would have considered myself a very disillusioned former Labour supporter. I could list everything they have done since those heady days of 1997, but like any break up, what would be the point? These days I think of them, if at all, like an ex whose number flashes onto your phone’s screen as you quietly put it down onto the table, walk into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Whatever the Labour Party had to say, I wasn’t in the mood for listening.

So imagine my surprise to finish the quiz and be told I am 84% Labour! I doubt even Ed Balls gets that much… About as Labour as it is possible to be and still I thought they weren’t worth the candle. It is almost as if there is an agenda to keep the focus on the awkwardness of Ed Miliband and away from his party’s policies. Imagine!

In a way though, the sheer abundance of ‘Ed Miliband looking daft’ photos that exist is heartwarming proof that the ruthless media operation of the Blair-Brown era has finally been laid to rest. Alistair Campbell would have ripped the still-beating heart out of any picture editor who even contemplated publishing this:

Miliband cuppa

… and there are many more examples.

Still, this focus on the leaders is itself very-unBritish. We don’t have a Presidential system, so unless you live in Doncaster North you are not actually able to vote for the poor man in the picture above. (Who among us can say that they have never suffered via an unstable cup and saucer?)

Suaver media presences have had their hands on the wheel since 2010 and look where that has got us. Simply put, we cannot let PR guy Cameron and his millionaires club cronies win again. In the words of a family member:

Public services will not survive another Tory Government.

There is now little left to cut.

As in 1945, when a vote for Labour was a vote for the NHS, so it is this time. Have Labour been awful in the past? Yep. Are they led by a guy who struggles with basic chinaware? You betcha. Am I going to vote for them anyway, in a fit of hope over experience? Yes, I am and I think you should seriously contemplate it too. The NHS needs us.

More from Mr Maguire, to follow when he has read all those manifestos…

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Reading to remember

As I read the accounts of survivors this Holocaust Memorial Day, it struck me that many of them came from those who had been children during World War II. One even remembered her sister being born in the camp. Even so, they were saying that this was likely to be the last year they would be fit and well enough to visit Poland for the ceremonies.

wire

As interest in the War started to rise during my childhood, and the survivors began to find some comfort in recounting events long-buried, I read a number of memoirs of the events, both in class and out of it. I probably started with Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, telling of a very ordered, quiet life and home interrupted by derring-do with the Dutch Resistance and eventual imprisonment.

Then I picked out Kitty Hart-Moxon’s record of her Return to Auschwitz from our school library. At the time I was at boarding school and couldn’t contemplate what the death camp showers actually meant or looked like. Gazing up at the institutional shower head above me and taking an extra big gulp of air before turning it on, just in case.

Anne Frank’s story was televised when I was a similar age, able to swoon with her over Peter and chafe at being locked up day after day with her family. I remember thinking how tragic it was that she died so close to the end, that if she could have held out a little longer, food and medicine might have been forthcoming. As if the survival of one diarist might have outweighed those lost. And if it is possible to wish for young Anne’s survival, why not that of all the others?

Then there was Schindler – his Ark first, then List – before a borrowed Primo Levi or two. My favourite being If Not Now, When? perhaps because of its partisans who fought back against the Nazis despite the seeming impossibility of victory at that time. And I notice that across all of these narratives it seems as if we prefer the hopeful outcome. That evil can be defeated s0 its victims can return to ‘normal’. It was difficult to read of Kitty Hart-Moxon dealing with colleagues in the UK who would joke about the tattooed numbers on her arm.

Again, a failure of my imagination. As a child I couldn’t understand how you could escape that from all that horror to die by your own hand, as Levi had done, as one of the characters in the excellent, engrossing film The Counterfeiters does, just minutes after the end of the War. It took further reading and here Maus opened my eyes still wider. Surviving was only a part, not the end. Only perhaps the end of the beginning, as the nightmares didn’t stop when the camps were liberated.

Stupidly, I had always thought Zyklon B a humane, clinical death. The science seduces you into believing it was something like chloroform. Maus knocked that right out of my mind. Art Spiegelman’s use of mice and cats to tell his father’s story life – both during and after the War – makes the brutality worse, perhaps because it reminded me of the humanity of those history tells us should be monsters but aren’t. Instead they were family men and women. Competent officers, effective administrators and clerks, who signed off on mass murder as if it were no more than shipping goods from A to B.

And what of when the goods were human beings? Although most memoirs feature the journeys to the camps, they are usually eclipsed by what is waiting on arrival. Jorge Semprún’s The Cattle Truck (also published as The Long Voyage) opens with 120 men being packed in for five days of hell on the way to another – the camp at Buchenwald. It is one of the most claustrophobic openings to a book I have encountered and completely unforgettable. He uses the time to recount his story to an older man, measuring out the miles in tales of his capture, Resistance life and youth in Spain during the Civil War.

Semprún has written extensively of his deportation to the camp, calling it the defining moment of his life. He also speaks in this interview of the blending of his memories with narrative devices more commonly found in fiction:

… my books are generally both memoirs and novels, both fiction and first-hand testimony. My aim was to create a synthesis of the two genres…

When I was working on the most painful parts of the autobiographical narrative, the ones I had postponed for so long, I forced myself to be as stringent as possible, to be absolutely faithful to the historical truth. I did not want to romanticize any of the details, or to distract the reader with dramatic turns of event or artificial moments of narrative tension. So I decided to use my imagination only when it felt necessary in order to produce a more lucid image of my overall experience of the camp.

Works of imagination have the power to deliver sometimes unfathomable truths to readers. Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is not entirely a novel of the Holocaust, yet it lurks in the shadows. On the surface, one would think his infidelities, relationship with his daughter and wife are what are pressing on poet JHJ, that and the work he is supposed to be doing while he dozes in the sun. Women weave around him – daughter, neighbour, wife, lover, friend – but it is the memories of Joe’s mother and sister that endure and prove fundamental.

In talking of what has been lost, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated captured the lost shtetl life while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – which I read in a sticky hot Bangkok December – Michael Chabon’s tale of an imagined Alaskan town peopled by many of the six million, having escaped there in the Thirties, brought a different perspective. I seem to recall (although searching can’t track it down) the author saying that the Holocaust had robbed him of the great networks of European Jewish life: the uncles and aunts, great-grandparents, cousins, friends of the family and distant relatives, that would have been his otherwise.

Seventy years on, what we sometimes think of as historical events, read in textbooks and ‘witnessed’ at arm’s length via films and memoirs, is still part of the unspoken horror of family remembrance, containing the power to warp and destroy relationships down through generations. As even the children of the Holocaust pass into old age and beyond, soon all we will be left with are their stories and their conviction that to know the truth is to guard against it happening again.

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Lily Poole by Jack O’Donnell

How much is too much to spend on a book? As with so much in life, George Orwell has already considered and quantified the answer for you. That said, I imagine the ideal price of a book is different for all of us and, while I love picking up the out-of-copyright classics and browsing through the 99p list on Amazon, for me – for a new-ish book I have a real hankering to read – the sweet spot is around a fiver. Perhaps it is a relic of all those book tokens I used to get for birthdays and Christmases.

So how much would you spend for a book that hasn’t been written or printed yet? Unbound is a concept akin to Kickstarter, for both established and new authors who are seeking funding for new works of fiction or non-fiction. They have already created a bit of a splash with their backing of Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Wake. For the readers, it is about becoming more than a consumer, being a talent-spotter perhaps, or paying it forward. You may even gain the opportunity to name a character…

And for the writers? As Miranda Ward writes in her Unbound-published and utterly brilliant book F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice:

This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative type, so that you can create more. Ultimately, it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money, the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

Of course, to be successful at this you need to – let’s be real, here – milk your contacts list for all its worth. You need benefactors, patrons and preferably rich ones, as every Renaissance artist knew. Or you need your idea to resonate with many, many people, so that they see fit to bung you a tenner. In these straitened times, that’s no mean feat. But if anyone is worthy of a portion of your hard-earned, it’s ABCtales writer Jack O’Donnell.

Jack

His novel-to-be Lily Poole, ‘a ghost story without a ghost’, is currently at 47% with an array of different pledge rewards available. Here is the pitch:

Lily Poole breaks the mould of horror fiction to ask serious and urgent questions about society and psychology, and does it while telling a gripping story about murder and deception, about Scotland and mental health, and about love and family.

There’s also an excerpt from the book available on the pledging page and I am sure it will whet your appetite for more. Which will be forthcoming, if enough of us stick some cash in the hat. Articles on the future of books and publishing are often full of doom and gloom, and who knows where things will eventually end. I wouldn’t want to venture any predictions. Other than to say that Unbound offers an alternative, a chance to discover books from outside mainstream publishing – such as their recent ‘Women in Print’ initiative – and to follow them from idea to realisation. How could any book lover resist?

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On homesickness

Who that has not suffered it understands the pain of exile?

– George Orwell, Burmese Days

To be quite honest, having travelled back on average once a year for the slightly more than four years so far spent outside the UK, to call it ‘exile’ is to overstate the case slightly. In these days of free internet calls and the journey not taking three weeks by boat, it is a bit daft to consider oneself banished far from all the good things of home.

image

Can’t be trusted in the sweet aisle, clearly…

That said, a relative bought a print of the Albert Dock and Three Graces in Liverpool for my wall in Japan and there are some mornings it is difficult to look at, the ache from not being able to walk into the frame is too much. Missing the city as if it were an old friend is a strange feeling – the flesh and blood should have a bigger call on the emotions than bricks and mortar – but as I have been exploring this festive season, there is just something special about the Pool of Life.

Missing it too much, however, can feel like a betrayal of the other city I call home. Life in Tokyo is great, if not without its minor annoyances, just as would be the case with anywhere. The trick that homesickness plays is to mask all the deficiencies of home, while throwing a shadow over all the benefits of away. Then you are in danger of becoming one of those awful bores, lacking any sense of perspective, that have been plaguing expat life since at least the Thirties:

He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

– Burmese Days (of course!)

The flip side of that is that, since returning, I find myself looking at my fellow shoppers, diners and train passengers wondering which of them ‘looks a bit UKIP’. A recommendation from brazzo70 in the comments on this post to check out Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe 2014 underlined all the ways in which the home country is leaving me behind (who in the hell commissioned Tumble? Danny Dyer in Eastenders? Nigel Farange appearing on anything? WHY WASN’T I CONSULTED ABOUT ANY OF THIS?)

 In an attempt to stave off the next bout of pining, measures have been implemented to bridge the gap. A Christmas present to myself was an annual subscription to Private Eye, so from later in the month you can expect to hear howls of outrage from my direction about a week after the original story first breaks. I also managed to register to vote as an overseas voter: this is open to all who left within the last 15 years and were registered before they left. Watch out, David Cameron!

All I need to do now is arrange for regular shipments of Maltesers…

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A year in books – 2014 – J. C. Greenway

Like my good pal, Mr Maguire, I have taken a more systematic approach to reading this year by making a reading plan. It wasn’t too exact, reckoning on two books a month and allowing for other discoveries by only planning for 10 months instead of 12. It sounds unbelievably dull, but as it paid off in an extra 15 books read this year, it might become a permanent feature! Access to free, out of copyright downloads means that I read more ebooks this year. They are just too convenient to avoid these days, however strong the preference for the turning of an actual page.

stack-of-booksWhile putting this plan down on paper, I decided that I wanted to read more from outside the ‘dead, white, European male’ perspective which so often makes up my reading. As this year started as the last ended, with a whole bunch of classy spy novels, this wasn’t altogether successful, but the effort will continue when planning next year’s books. I also want to read more works in translation, to disprove that theory that English-speaking readers won’t touch such books. Also this year I was lucky enough to get an offer of free downloads from the website Unbound, which introduced me to many new writers as well as a new way of publishing books.

Here is my list of books read in 2014, with links to reviews written along the way, as well as some further thoughts following. In chronological order, I read this year:

  1. Mike and Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse
  2. Psmith in the City, P. G. Wodehouse
  3. Crying Just Like Anybody: A Fiction Desk Anthology
  4. A Murder of Quality, John le Carré
  5. The Looking Glass War, John le Carré
  6. My Name Is Loco and I am a Racist, Baye McNeil
  7. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  9. Under Fire, Henri Barbusse
  10. Piggy Monk Square, Grace Jolliffe
  11. Down the Figure 7, Trevor Hoyle
  12. These Turbulent Times, Paul Tomkins
  13. I’m The One, Miha Mazzini (short story)
  14. A Game With Sharpened Knives, Neil Belton
  15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  16. Burmese Days, George Orwell
  17. Jew Boy, Simon Blumenfeld
  18. The Interpreters, Ben Anderson
  19. A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Road Home, Rose Tremain
  21. Our Game, John le Carré
  22. The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham
  23. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
  24. The Lighthouse, Alison Moore
  25. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth
  26. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre
  27. Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
  28. Elephant Moon, John Sweeney
  29. Salt & Old Vines, Richard W. H. Bray
  30. F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice, Miranda Ward
  31. Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler
  32. The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré
  33. Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford
  34. The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing
  35. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
  36. Conversations With Spirits, E. O. Higgins
  37. Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard
  38. Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway

Looking at my list, it seems that I didn’t do too well at #readwomen2014, with just seven women appearing. The inter-war period still seems to be my favourite, with 14 books either being written or set in the Twenties and Thirties. It is going to take a more concerted effort next year to break away from the old, dead, European men.

Some highlights this year were set very close to home, with Piggy Monk Square by Grace Jolliffe and Trevor Hoyle’s Down The Figure 7 offering two completely different perspectives on growing up in the North of England. Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld contrasted with and provoked thought as well as Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Spy novels remain a pleasure, so it was engrossing to pick up Ben Macintyre’s tale of the real-life mole in our midst, Kim Philby. Miranda Ward’s book – part manifesto, part memoir – of making it or not in the music and other creative industries prompted much highlighting and scribbling in notebooks. Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins was a triumph, taking on spiritualism and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it should be read by all.

Despite its World War II setting, nods to Orwell and plucky heroine, I couldn’t warm to Elephant Moon by John Sweeney. It had all the right ingredients and should have been a cracking tale, but felt far too slow to me. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is undoubtably the work of a skilled writer, but I disliked her characters so much it was difficult to spend time with them.

When it comes to picking a best book of the year, there really is only one candidate. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was unlike anything else, written in an edited version of Old English and rewarding the dedicated reader with a finely woven and masterfully rendered story. Language and narrative both perfectly combined. The writer announced that this is planned to be the first of a trilogy, which is very happy news and something to look forward to placing on a future list.

So, how about you? How did you get on and which were your favourite reads of the year?

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Time off

When you leave the house without your young kids – ensuring there is another compos mentis adult around first, of course – it can be difficult to switch off the instincts. Someone struggles with their coat next to you: leave them to it! People drop umbrellas: they can pick them up themselves! You don’t have to be a twit about it and if help is obviously needed and can be given, it should be offered. But none of these other humans are entirely reliant on you and isn’t that marvellous?

Everyone thinks – and you think yourself – that what you will want to do as soon as you have ‘time off’ are the big things: shopping, manicure, ski trip, etc – but actually what you crave is down time.

Ginza tea and cake

Sitting in a cafe, eating without interruption, staring into space or reading a book in bed. It is the little moments that matter more than a night in a club. Anyway, when you have done newborn duty pulling an all-nighter seems less hardcore. Try 100 nights of sleep broken into two-hour intervals. Being a sleep-lover, I am still not sure how I made it through…

Best thing has to be though, after a couple of hours away, you feel like you have been away a bit too long. (Really you have felt this since about 10 minutes after you left, but you have reached a point of being unable to ignore it.) Then you get back home, keen to see the little faces again. Walk in the door and…

…they didn’t even realise you had gone.

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Taking the baton

We are losing them. That generation, the ones that built the mythology. Slipping away into hospital beds and sheltered housing, winding down without a lot of fuss. The ones who brought you up on what it meant to be a Scouser. The ones who walked down Scotland Road when it was still Scottie Road, when it had a pub on every corner, not a flyover. They could tell you tall tales of boats packed so tight into Albert Dock it was possible to walk across over the decks without getting a wet foot. They could never talk of St John’s Market without distinguishing it by saying, ‘the new one, of course’, even though it had been open longer than you have been alive.

They were our link to the old, great Liverpool – which they knew wasn’t that great, not if you were a docker working short hours or your lad was lost on the Titanic and the bosses wanted you to pay for his uniform – but still eulogised. They were radicalised, but not into firebrands, into the socialism of Bill Shankly, with:

everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards.

They grew up in a city of ocean liners and never closing your front door, not Harry Enfield stereotypes and ‘gizza job, mate’. The Eighties bewildered them then, as they probably still do.

They didn’t have much but they still raised you right. Looked on in bemusement at your pile of Christmas toys as they recalled their happiness at getting a tangerine in their stocking. Made sure you did well at school at the same time as understanding that there was more to be learnt than you could do at a desk, questioning everything. You knew that although they had left their schooldays before their teens they held more knowledge than you could acquire at university. They loved you without measure but encouraged you to go, feel the pull of the river, calling you to explore the rest of the world while never fully escaping these streets and the love they hold. So proud of you that they would die rather than say it, covering it up with a web of gentle teasing, nicknames and family in-jokes. Still, you never doubted it for a second. You were from the best place and the best people there could be.

Even though, of course, none of us are really that ‘from’ there at all. I used to stroll down Dale Street on a lunch break and try to picture it as it was when my great-grandparents arrived, fresh off the boat. Muck instead of tarmac, horses everywhere and a forest of masts beyond the Pier Head. I have probably seen it in old photos. But, although I couldn’t imagine the feel of it – were they anxious, missing home, relieved to be making a new start – in a somewhat rootless existence, there was comfort to walking the same stones as the generations who had come and gone before I was even thought of.

liverpool salthouse dock

Faces I have only seen occasionally, on the few misty family photos that have survived, and still they gave me strength. Whatever gets thrown at you, you will get through, just as we got through. Famines and wars and disasters, loves and laughter and all the mad whirl of life. Survived on tea and chip butties and plates of Scouse.

I came back for the birth of my son, and I try to picture telling him about Scotland Road, ships and Shankly sometime around 2028 when he will be old enough. And I think of how distant it will all seem. I hope that one day, when he is walking around whatever comes after the Liverpool One, he will hear the echo of those distant footsteps – of the ones who walked before him. And he will know, wherever he happens to be living, that some part of this is home.

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A sense of belonging

In the coming year, I really want someone to stand up – and I really hope it will be Ed Miliband – to say something along the lines of: I’m a migrant, you’re a migrant, some of my best friends are migrants. Some came as children, some fleeing, others as students. They have brought things to us and have adapted to the ways in which we do things, strange though we have sometimes found each other.

Some of them came further back in the past, to fight alongside us when things were dark. They fought against an ideology that said that some people were made superior by blood and biology and that put millions to death to preserve this nonsensical pseudo-scientific theory of racial purity.

We, the descendents of those that fought together against it, refute that ideology completely. We know that although we are an island, we have never been insular. Rather, our influence has always extended beyond our shores. Our language has travelled around the globe and, despite the fact that our influence has not always been benign, our hope is that our words can become something of a unifier.

What would Britain be without immigration? Perhaps our roads would be muddier and wonkier, our castles made of wood, not stone, and large swathes of it might be forest, not farmland. More recent arrivals have brought food, music and literature: the joys of life. Migrants, their children and grandchildren, have nursed us through sickness, taught our children and built our houses. They serve as magistrates, stand as MPs, read the nightly news. They are as bound into the fabric of our country as a plant from the Americas is to our soil and our diets.

Anybody with any sense can see that strength comes from this, not some outdated, horrendous notion of ‘purity’ or ‘separateness’, but a blending and mixing of backgrounds, experiences and histories that creates a patchwork, linking us to Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. We are joined via great-grandparents who perhaps had to leave or perhaps chose to, and decided to come – perhaps a little reluctantly – to the industrial powerhouse that we were, leaving behind more pleasing scenes that would never entirely leave their hearts.

Perhaps those migrants came because they believed us when we spoke of our love of fair play and justice, of ‘live and let live’. They might have come because we never surrendered, never gave in to the jack-boots, because we fought on the beaches. That makes it even more ridiculous to me that today, the political descendents of those who did take money from fascist dictators, who donned their black shirts and silver flashes, who shouted ‘Death to Jews’ or trumpeted ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, now seek to convince us that they hold the key to what Britishness is and that they are the keepers of the flame. It is rubbish.

Not our Briton of the Year

Not our Briton of the Year

It doesn’t matter if you drive a white van or a vintage Jag, if you believe that there is a ‘THEY’, who can be ‘SENT BACK’ to some imaginary ‘OVER THERE’ and all problems will be magicked away with them, you are being sold a pup. The problems that afflict our society don’t stem from Europe or the Middle East, or anywhere else. They don’t come from people of a different colour, or religion, speaking a different language to you. They have been caused by mostly old, mostly white, mostly men – certainly greedy – taking more than they are entitled to and leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps. Migrants didn’t crash the banks, vote to sell off the NHS to healthcare companies they own shares in or spend your money on duck homes or moat cleaning.

We can continue down this road to the end, refuse every visa to every scientist researching medical cures, every student attracted to our universities, break apart more families, close the doors and say no more. Our country would be no richer and certainly far poorer. Or we can draw a line, say no more ground will be given to the racists and nationalists. Of course we need to set criteria, but they will be fairly applied. Of course we need to verify information, but you will be treated with dignity while we do. If you are looking for a base for study, for innovation, for entrepreneurship, to love who you want to, to raise a family in peace and freedom, as so many have done before you, join us. Welcome. We come from many places, but we all belong here.

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Writing Liverpool

Coming home for Christmas can contain a mixture of emotions, perhaps depending on where you are returning to and from which departure point. Along with the tins of Quality Street to attack and relatives to catch up with, returning to Liverpool always super-charges my creativity, as if the old brain had been plugged into the mains. Partly that is because I know so many talented individuals here and that can’t help but inspire, but also it is the fabric of the city itself.

Pushing my infant son along the street in his buggy, my thoughts took a sudden detour into Helen Forrester’s Depression-era wanderings with her baby brother in Twopence to Cross the Mersey. (Since copied by a thousand similar ‘misery memoirs’, a recent re-read confirmed that this tale of everyday poverty in the Thirties still shocks and informs the reader. Very much recommend picking it up!) Thankfully my legs weren’t as bare as hers, as we walked into the teeth of the gale that never seems far away in a Liverpool winter.

The weather, the streets, the mix of people, the often brutal living and working conditions: there is something about this city that commands your attention and demands you put pen to paper. Over the years many have tried to analyse why that should be, but I think few come as close as this quote seen hanging on the wall at the Museum of Liverpool:

image

Take a taxi, sit in a bar, wander around – even while paying for your shopping or in the dentist’s waiting room – the stories leap out at you. There are no boring people, my mother once said, every person has their story. Mothers tend to be right on these things, as on many others, galling as it is sometimes to acknowledge.

And Scouse families – Carla Lane’s Boswells among them – seem to drive this verbal narrative on. From your earliest years they will be telling you stories of people you are only possibly supposed to remember, old friends, distant relatives, many long dead, and they want to hear yours in return. As a shy teenager, the demand to ‘perform’ when it was my turn had me tongue-tied and stammering – but I still can’t finish a piece of writing until I have read it aloud. If it doesn’t work to my ear, I know it won’t work on the page.

So as well as stuffing myself with Christmas treats, this holiday will see me gorging on all the city has to offer, from theatre to opera, as well as the continuous play that goes on around the dinner tables and in the streets of my home town.

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If only freedom of speech meant knowing when to be quiet

Twenty-four hours after the big day, by now hopefully the major disappointment should be fading. I refer, of course, to the possible inability – if in certain parts of the US – to sit in a cinema and watch North Korean assasination romp (words you never thought could belong together) The Interview.

Personally, having caught a bit too much of an earlier Seth Rogan-James Franco offering, This is The End, a thousand years could pass without me needing to witness this comedy pairing again, but realise I probably don’t speak for all. To each their own. But I do wonder about all those manning the freedom of speech barricades this holiday season and their seeming unfamiliarity with this particular xkcd cartoon:

free_speech

It is surely an ultimate act of assholery to depict the assassination of another country’s leader, however much of a despot they may be, and play it for laughs. Especially when you come from a nation with a long history of assassinating leaders who cause you displeasure. That third panel seems to me to have particular resonance in this situation: too often Hollywood, if not America itself, is immune from the consequences of its actions. Payback – like taxes – is for the little people, not the overgrown children at the top of the Tinseltown food chain that few dare say no to. Even when the ‘boss’ does mention that perhaps a scene is going a little too far and needs to be reshot, the cry goes out that this is Art and artistic expression cannot be constrained.

North Korea seems to have been the butt of  jokes for so long now that perhaps the creative team behind this movie didn’t expect to provoke so much ire. From Team America: World Police to Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things, the narrative has been established that this is more of a tin pot dictatorship than a Pol Pot one. Yet the numbers dying there in recent years – although likely to be never finally confirmed – suggest that there’s not much to laugh at north of the Demilitarized Zone. Even Cold War vintage Bond never went as far as to off a real Soviet leader on-screen, instead using rogue generals or shadowy organisations such as SMERSH to add a drop of reality to a gallon of fiction. Satire has its place, but Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Spitting Image’s depiction of the Thatcher era suggest that it is an ineffectual weapon at bringing about regime change.

Speaking of ineffectual weapons, perhaps one’s perception of North Korea shifts when they are near neighbours. I remember taking a train to work and refreshing Twitter to find out what was happening with a missile that had been launched in my general direction. Luckily – or perhaps not for the scientists that had designed it – it splashed down somewhere in the sea off Japan. And had it not, it no doubt would have been intercepted. Still, it is hard not to feel that there is not giving in to threats and then there is not grabbing the tiger by the tail in the first place.

The Vulture story referenced above quotes Amy Pascal of Sony Entertainment Pictures as saying she is not sure,

how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation.

Japanese relations with both sides of the Korean divide are usually quite fraught, to put it mildly. At any time, it should not be unexpected that a Japanese parent company might ask its foreign subsidiaries to avoid putting the North’s back up. But at a time when delicate negotiations between the two countries are pushing along like the proverbial glacier, when you realise what is at stake, perhaps artistic expression should sit down, preferably in a back seat, and keep its mouth firmly zipped.

If this latest round of talks don’t result in anything, then I don’t think we’ll ever see them again. We’re both in our late 80s, so we have to accept that we might not be around for much longer. She is constantly in my thoughts. When I think of how I have been unable to do anything to help her all these years, I quietly say sorry to her.

Japan is currently seeking information about a number of its citizens – possibly more than 800 people – who were abducted and taken to North Korea in the 70s and 80s. The clock is ticking as more than one family member has died not knowing what happened to their relative. Information provided in the past has since been shown to be false and remains that were said to be those of certain abductees turned out not to belong to the stated person.

And while the arguments may run that threats should never be responded to, that Art cannot be trammelled by mere politics, that ends up giving cold comfort. The name of Sony is so synonymous with Japan that stating that Sony Entertainment Pictures is an independent American company holds little sway. Via torrents and the campaign for the right of Hollywood to do as it pleases, there will be more chance of seeing The Interview this Christmas than there will be of the Arimotos seeing their daughter Keiko.

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