Monday 30 July 2012

Danny Boyle backlash: what the Right know is being said at London Olympics 2012

In all the excitement of Danny Boyle's stunning London Olympics opening ceremony, I hadn't realised there might be a second phase of pleasure to be had for us armchair enthusiasts. Shrilling out from the widespread sigh of relief that Britain did not suck in front of a billion global viewers is a crescendo of protest from a section of Britain who've had it easy for so long they've forgotten what intelligent criticism looks like: Boyle lifted that rock on Friday and look what's emerged blinking in the light.

First off the block was Tory MP Aidan Burley whose instinctive reaction to the Olympics spectacle was to decry the inclusion of all those ethnic minorities that make up the fabric of Britain as "leftie multi-cultural crap". He was quite speedy with his now notorious Tweet, while for his spiritual bredren it's been like watching a dinosaur kicked in the tail and struggling to work out what's just happened, proving that Burley's brain-stem reflex is in better new world order than his mates.

Although Rupert Murdoch sensed political correctness, he is far too sly an old fox to express anything other than graciousness. (Watch out, Danny, your card may have been marked!)

Unlike a host of ill-wishing Tweeters such as @toadmeister Toby Young who saw "a £27 million Party Political Broadcast for the Labour Party," and Stephen Pollard (@stephenpollard) who "Found the torch ceremony truly unpleasant and deeply unsettling. Paganistic crowd manipulation" and described the whole show as "a piss-take of a lefty wet dream".

The climax of all this fear of "Other" was the hate-fuelled piece that stood out from some otherwise quite decent coverage in the Daily Mail online. “This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up."

On and on it went in the same unhinged vein until the inevitable complaints prompted someone on the paper to do a heavy edit. However, polishing a turd doesn't make it any less of one.

Apart from those of us of a duskier hue and less-abled being represented, what was it that disturbed the complacency of our dinosaurs so much? "Spelling out 'NHS' is an ideological statement, like spelling out 'Marxism'." said one Tweet. "The UKshould be celebrating our traditions and heritage, not nutty socialism." said another. Who'd have thought that anyone with fellow human feelings could find the wonder that is universal healthcare — a fine British invention — so upsetting? Or assume that the notion of public ownership in an equitable organisation of society for the good of everyone is not part of our tradition and heritage?

I suppose that depends on whose tradition and heritage you mean.

To think that I'd fully expected another stitch-up for the launch, such was the utter bottom-scraping build-up, as with the governments (Labour and Coalition) who sold our democratic civil rights to the lowest bidders in order to secure the 2012 games. For all I knew, Boyle might have been another chancer just like the former health and prime ministers, now carving up the NHS for their privatised personal gain. Or the ex-Home Secretary who's now a director of G4S and running the largest private army in the world.

Or he could have been a vacuous TV showbiz mogul and given us a variation on the dismal Jubilee concert, or made an idiotic attempt to out-extravaganza Beijing on a quarter of the budget during a recession.

Instead, Boyle pulled a people's Olympics opener out of the jaws of the plundering class who'd hijacked our games and tried to rip us off at every turn. (It's only through the efforts of organisations such as 38 Degrees that some of the sponsors have been pressured into abandoning their avoidance of paying their fair share of tax.)

The opening ceremony transcended party politics and took us back to root values.

In an age where the media shamefully allows lies to go unchallenged every time a supine minister or businessman caught with his hand in the till says, "Look over there", Boyle's cri de couer is refreshing. The Tory narrative that we are skint and the poor have to pay for the bankers' continuing excesses while the Sunday Times top 1000 is worth £440bn and corporate profits are at an all-time high is surely the sort of "crowd manipulation" a principled media should be challenging.

Instead it serves up the same dead-head business class in order to naturalise a status quo where the rest of us are fodder. How often do you see or hear a trade unionist or a working-class representative with the same pundit rights as Mary Portas, the Dragons' Den gargoyles, Alan Sugar, Secret Millionaires, abusive celebrity chefs, Simon Cowell and the whole finger-wagging, knife-wielding shouty gamut of grotesques now laying down the law at every level in our culture?

When Boyle decided to have the Olympics torch entry to the stadium flanked by the thousands of workers who built it, he was saying a big screw you to the business chiefs who Pollard, Young, Burley et al would have had celebrated on this occasion rather than their workers: the construction bosses who sneer at 'elf and safety, who destroy lives and blacklist anyone with enough of a conscience to seek to make the industry safer. You have more chance of dying on a British construction site than you do in Afghanistan.

Interesting that one slip of the mask can elicit such a howl of agony. The liberal press is unable to offer an analysis and, unlike the right, seems oblivious to the case being made, producing instead meaningless drivel like this.

On Friday, Boyle shone a searchlight allowing us to take stock of where we are now. The elegy was beautiful but we should do something to halt what he flagged up as being lost.

There are two great things to have come out of the London Olympics so far: the Thames cable car and the knowledge that there are still some brilliant people who can carve out a bit of space for the rest of us.

Well done Danny Boyle: reading the London Olympics 2012

Ian Sinclair in LRB: My Olympics.

Sour grapes over Ye Shiwen's swimming Gold. Although BBC commentators leapt to conclusions, it was an interview with the US coach that sparked fury following Clare Balding's intemperate accusation within seconds of the win on television.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Well done Danny Boyle: reading the London Olympics opening ceremony 2012

I'm not so sure Danny Boyle's expected establishment gong is as much of a dead cert as pundits assume now we've had a chance to unpack the movie director's critical state-of-the-nation London Olympics narrative. Last night's £27m opening extravaganza temporarily won me over from furious cynicism following the games' hijacking by Locog's pet corporations and their civil rights clampdown.

I should have realised — trust the creatives. The CREATIVES, not the crude showmen who might have turned in a vapid series of set pieces going no-where. I'm sorry I misjudged you Danny — the boy done good. This ceremony may have begun with a bucolic paradise with peasants tending their flocks but it ended with a vast setting sun as troglodyte primitives danced it into extinction.

Among the crowd-pleasers were woven some awesome subversive elements. Our unique selling points as a nation may be our musical back-catalogue, James Bond and the Queen, but even these were nicely handled. After watching Her Maj parachute into the stadium, I was hoping she might turn out to be the mystery cauldron igniter, maybe kicking a flaming football into the target, but Boyle had far more democratic plans for his climax.

He started with Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a benign engineer kicking off the industrial revolution before top-hatted capitalists (reminiscent of the ones in Eisenstein's Strike) mess it up, tearing up the turf and turning the peasants off the land.

Branagh recites Caliban's speech from Shakespeare's The Tempest:
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

As some have noticed, this is what Caliban says just before he tries to kill "an imperial innovator who took away his island". Hmm, I wonder what Boyle is saying here.

Filling the stadium with five huge chimneys and factories and foundries to the sound of 1,000 drummers, we're reminded that British power came from its industrial (r)evolution and the people who laboured in it. Of course, most of yer actual working class were working their arses off on stage for free, not sitting in the comfy seats they couldn't afford.

But they were represented, hammering drums and metal, actually making things, while the tool-free capitalists worked thin air, much as they do with their banking tricks.

What they eventually end up with is the forging of the five rings of the Olympic symbol (yeah, the one we're all banned from using even though we paid for most of it) rising above the audience like something hellish out of Mordor.

A parade of Windrush immigrants, 1960s cultural explosion (Beatles), cockneys and the ordinary people who helped make Britain, made the most of a diverse range of the population and ensured they weren't rendered invisible. Boyle might have had an eye on Brecht who asked, "Who built the seven gates of Thebes?".

However, it was the NHS segment that gave me the most squeeing pleasure as Boyle stuck it to Richard Branson and the privatisers. Melding the NHS and children's literature, a battalion of nurses and doctors wheeled in hospital beds occupied by children (two to a bed — how it will look when the Tories get through with it).

A childcatcher (Maggie Thatcher?), a terrifyingly oversized Voldemort and assorted monsters (coalition creeps and Big Biz) harry the children while NHS staff attempt to fight them off.

Best of all, who did Danny choose to read during this scene? None other than JK Rowling herself, not only creator of the monstrous Voldemort and most successful commercial British writer, but famously a supporter of the welfare state who sends her own children to state schools. What's more, she doesn't avoid tax on her vast fortune but spreads it out. Unlike certain others now running the nation. Danny, this leftie salutes you.

Rowling read from J M Barrie's Peter Pan. J M Barrie donated the income from his book to children's hospitals.

And the music to accompany this warning to the forces of evil to get their mitts off our NHS? Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Significance? Tubular Bells was the phenomenal seller in the early 1970s which made Branson's Virgin empire (he even named one of his Virgin America Airlines planes "Tubular Belle"). Branson's Virgin, now scheming to run the PRIVATISED NHS SERVICE, including children's healthcare!!! Kudos, Danny!

Also noted: national hero in his own head, Tony Blair, who's been jonesing for inclusion in the Olympics all week and is looking to carve up the NHS with his Mee Healthcare company, didn't even get a mention.

(Pic montage by Eddie Truman)

But the CND did, its symbol formed out of multi-cultural dancers — including some disabled — to a musical medley of our greatest pop and rock hits.

As did Tim Berners-Lee who invented teh interwebz. (Brits also invented carbon-capture coal-burning technology but we haven't built even one.)

Abide With Me was sung to an Anish Kapoor-influenced dying sun, a reference to Boyle's movie Sunshine. The song is not only used as the rugby anthem and at FA Cup finals, but it's sung at the funerals of miners. Or mines. Or our entire productivity and everything we've known.

After the athletes paraded in, the event ended with a spectacular cauldron-lighting ceremony, carried out, not by a tired old sleb, but by the next generation of athletes: seven young men and women.

Rupert Murdoch tweeted that it was 'a little too politically correct'. At least he wasn't as crudely reactionary as the Tory who complained about multi-cultural representation and was buried in an avalanche of tweets.

Meanwhile, outside the Olympic Park, the Critical Mass bike protest was being kettled and intimidated — so unlike Beijing which British commentators never tire of sneering at. The furious cynicism is still there for Dow, McDonalds, Coke, G4S and the rest of the greedy tax-avoiding exploiting bastards (only £700m out of the £9.3 bn cost is funded by the sponsors), but the performers and athletes are the stars of the show from now on.

I noticed after I'd written this that the Arctic Monkey's first song had the lyric refrain "1984", so Orwell was present last night. Here's another gem I missed from Alex Wolff in Sports Illustrated: "Somewhere in the cacophony of last night, during what might have been the world's largest Twitter storm, this nugget emerged: Hey Jude was No. 1 on the charts the day Smith and Carlos raised their fists -- and that single's B-side was Revolution." Thanks to Noel Currid for this.

[Okay, okay, Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web, not the internet. I'm still impressed.]

Not forgetting Danny's writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce who did such a great job, including introducing Boyle to Henry Jennings's Pandemonium.

Ian Sinclair in LRB: My Olympics.

I wondered when this was going to happen. Danny Boyle Backlash: London Olympics 2012

Must read Chris T-T's hilarous sharp take on the gruesome Closing Ceremony.

Thursday 26 July 2012

The Nightingale: La Jolla Playhouse debates yellowface casting

Yellowface. The monster that refuses to die in the final reel. It's back and this time it's still personal. As well as political.

There's been another ruck about the use of yellowface casting in theatre, where Asian characters are played by white actors. This time, it's in the US where La Jolla Playhouse has produced a play based on The Nightingale with mostly white and black actors, using only two Asians out of 12.

There are so few opportunities to employ Asian actors that each one, when it surfaces is precious. The argument over using blackface was won years ago, so why are we still having to fight for every Asian role?

Excluding any group from the cultural output of their own society dehumanises them. The effect of mystifying ethnic minorities — in particular east Asian who are nearly invisible both sides of the Atlantic — has political ramifications in that we become a vacuum into which people can dump all their fears. It's no good pleading the "cross-racial casting" defence when it only goes one way. Neither will "it's only a fantasy" do when the mythical world appropriates real people's culture in order to play out some inner psychic space of dominant groups.

So loud was the protest that La Jolla Playhouse finally had the guts and honesty to hold a panel discussion on 22nd July. You can watch the whole unedited debate here.

And here's American actor, Greg Watanabe, with an assessment of where we are right now.

My thoughts on "The Nightingale" at the La Jolla Playhouse, and the post show panel discussion on July 22:

I think it's important to communicate just how disrespected I feel. And I feel confident that many others in the Asian Pacific Islander American community feel the same way.

I feel like the APIA community has worked so hard to articulate and share our experience with racism, dominant culture, and white privilege and how those things have led to our exclusion and misrepresentation and to orientalism and fetishization.

So, to see a show set in "mythical China" where 6 out of 12 of the actors are white males and only 2 are Asian's difficult not to just start shouting out swear's that insulting; Asian Americans are relegated to token minority status in a play set in Asia.

And to hear the concept of "multi cultural casting" being used as a defense, as if we were against it, as if taking a show show set in Germany (an example the playwright offered) with its all its white roles and casting it non- traditionally means the same thing as taking a show set in "mythical China" with its 12 Asian characters and casting only 2 Asian Americans.

The first person chosen to speak from the audience, a white woman, asked, "are there any qualified Asians?" The African American actor who stood and spoke, enumerated the credits of the if to say they got cast because they are better than you. In addition to being beside the point, It's incredibly disrespectful.

I'm glad they spoke though, because I feel like there are others who think like them.

Just like the young white woman who stood up and said she was Polish American, and then made a reference to African Americans cast in, "A Streetcar named Desire", as if to suggest that if that's okay, then we can cast non-Asians as Asians. Again, her white privilege allowing her to think that a level playing field exists, that there is no inequity in the American theater and that "multi cultural casting" is simply a style of theater.

One of the reasons the creative team is fighting so hard against the Asian setting and the Asian characters, and therefore the Asian actors, is that they didn't want it to be seen as an "Asian show"; they wanted an "East West show". They don't realize that they are essentially saying, "we don't think of Asian Americans as western"; and in a play with no references to Europe, "western" feels like "American". They saw an Asian American cast, and said, "it's too Chinese; we don't want to tell an asian story." as if Asian Americans can't tell a westernized story.

"East meets West?" Asian Americans ARE East meets West. As someone pointed out to me: Asian Americans know a lot more about the dominant white culture than the dominant white culture knows about us.

And the thing is, seeing the show, it seems like the creators want the play to be asian, to be Chinese. They want the exotic feel, the red and gold silk gowns, the paper lanterns, the chinese junks helmed by rice paddy hat wearing boatmen, magic flying, chinese dragons...which can be great...just don't try to run away from what it is, don't deny that that's part off the story you want to tell.

So if the setting is Chinese, or at the very least asian, then it should be cast that way. And it can even be cast multiculturally. But I ask that you try and imagine beyond a dominant white culture perspective, one where multicultural means half of the people are white. Instead, perhaps you could imagine an asian american view of a mythical China. One where the lead is Asian American, where Asian Americans make up a majority of the cast. And it would still be multicultural, still be East meets West, still be an american story.

Greg Wanabe is on Twitter.

The LA Times asks Are we really living in a post-racial world?

Casting controversy at KPBS, San Diego University.

Monday 23 July 2012

Iron Man 3: yellowface casting of Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin or do we really want another Chinese villain?

What have I and the Mandarin, big bad in the upcoming Iron Man 3, got in common? Both of us have Chinese fathers and English mothers. Plus we both look like the giant Sphinx mounted over the Morlocks' lair in The Time Machine ... at least first thing in the morning. Does that make me the Mandarina?

But enough about me.

There's a fuss brewing regarding a brazen example of mainstream yellowface in the pipeline. One of the biggest Chinese roles to arise in a Hollywood blockbuster has gone to an actor perceived as quintessentially English: Sir Ben Kingsley.

The Mandarin was created as Iron Man's arch-nemesis in the 1960s, when Chinese villainy was the norm. Okay, it still is, but Stan Lee had the excuse that he was birthing his characters in more innocent times, when fewer people were aware of the ramifications of cutting out ethnic minorities except to use them as villain-fodder.

While a howl of protest builds and lets the leviathans of the entertainment industry know we're fed up with our constant exclusion, it might be worth asking why a movie part-financed by and shot in China would not gift such a humungous a starring role to a Chinese actor.

China is sensitive about how it's portrayed in the west. There's a history of Yellow Peril hysteria dating from the mid-19th century complete with anti-Chinese riots and lynchings and the 1888 Exclusion Act, specifically aimed at Chinese even if they were American citizens. That's all ramping up again now that modern China is on the rise.

The holder of the purse-strings is now calling the shots. Chow Yun Fat's scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End were cut from screenings in China by the authorities because they claimed the role "vilifies and humiliates the Chinese" (reminiscent of the treatment the nationalist government gave Hollywood screen legend Anna May Wong who they accused of not wearing enough clothes and disgracing China). It's difficult to see how such editing could be achieved without the entire plot collapsing. Besides, Chow's character arc ended with him siding squarely with the heroes. But no-one's taking any chances with millions of bucks and the fate of the Iron Man franchise at stake.

Rumour has it that the movie Mandarin plans to conquer the world through a deadly nanobot virus — shades of Bird Flu and SARS. That could explain the need to cast this as far away from actual Chinese as possible. He may even be relegated to a background role as Guy Pearce's uber-villain Aldrich Killian drives the story. (Why they had to resurrect a now-ancient cold-war scenario in the 21st century is anyone's guess, but hardcore comic book geeks will want the canon, if not the Chinese, respected.)

Talk about caught between a rock and hard place. Damed if you do, damned if you don't.

It's actually a pretty shrewd bit of casting. Kingsley is, like me and the Mandarin, half Asian with a white English mother — he was born Krishna Pandit Bhanji in 1943. Yes, India's the wrong end of Asia and on the near side of the Himalayas but, from a eurocentric viewpoint, for western audiences who can't tell the difference, it's close enough. It defuses a little of the anger surrounding the continued use of yellowface and the near-invisibility of Chinese in western society, while placating the massive Chinese audience with a villain who is not of their ethnicity.

So, in his red-white-and-blue patriot armour, looking halfway morphed into Captain America, Tony Stark (Iron Man, once again played by Robert Downey Jr) can safely enact the slug-fest between the old superpower and the new usurper without everyone getting their knickers in a twist. America will win the battle of the titans in Iron Man 3, proving that life may not imitate art, after all.

Iron Man 3 is due for release May 2013.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

China In Britain at Westminster Uni: Anna and Charles Shaar Murray on the bill

I'm performing this afternoon at the China In Britain event at Westminster University, 4.45pm. It's a talk with performance extracts from my shows and a bit of poetry. The wonderful Charles Shaar Murray is my musical accompanist, playing guitar.

I'll be referring to various topics so here are the links for you to explore further.

Anna May Wong Must Die! here

Suzy Wrong — Human Cannon here

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon row with the Guardian here

Foot and Mouth Disease campaign here

The Copenhagen Climate Change Summit gamesmanship here

Sherlock — The Blind Banker review here

Niall Ferguson Civilisation review here

Review of Julia Lovell's The Opium War here

The Steampunk Opium Wars here

Anna's arts website here

Anna's YouTube

Translating China website
The Old Cinema, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW
Wednesday 18th July 2012

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Anna's Olympics Experience 2012: Stratford site and torch in Ipswich

View of the London Olympics site less than a month before the games, passing through on the train. Plus the day the Olympic Torch arrived in Ipswich.

This is as much of the live stuff that I want to see of the Dystopian Olympics. The rest will be enjoyed from my sofa where I can eat all the non-McDonalds chips I want, and drink any bottled stuff without having the Games fash on my tail.

Anna on the Dystopian Olympics in 2008.

Anna on the Dystopian Olympics last month.

3D pix of Olympic venues in an interesting virtual tour.

Saturday 14 July 2012

A Routemaster named Dystopia

Here's what I wrote in 2008 on where the London Olympics were headed.

And here's what I wrote last month.

Spooky, possums. Or maybe I was just paying attention.

But even I never guessed they'd stick major military hardware on people's homes (not the homes of the wealthy lining the Thames, note).

Protesters are having to get special legal training to know their rights. Heaven forfend that this should happen ...

Locog tries to take over the internet. Their rules here. Oh yeah ...?

Friday 13 July 2012

British Chinese Richard III on national tour

David Lee-Jones as Richard III

Britain's first Chinese Richard III — David Lee-Jones — is currently on national tour from Scotland until 22nd August at the Penlee Park Open Air Theatre in Penzance.

I was part of a rehearsed reading of The Other Shore last year at the New Diorama where David's presence and gravitas stood out, so I'm really sorry to have missed the London performance at Peckham Rye last Sunday. Here's a great review by Avril Silk of the Somerset performance.

Event Venues & Times
29/07/12 only Newhailes | Newhailes Road, Musselburgh, Edinburgh, EH21 6RY
04/08/12 only Falkland Palace | Falkland, Cupar, Fife, KY15 7BU
03/08/12 only House Of Dun & Montrose Basin | Nature Reserve, Angus, DD10 9LQ
27/07/12 only Leighton Hall | Carnforth, Lancashire, LA5 9ST
finished New Inn | 16 Northgate Street, Gloucester, Gloucestershire, GL1 1SF
25/08/12 only Jewry Wall Museum | St. Nicholas Circle, Leicester, LE1 4LB
finished Chepstow Castle | Bridge Street, Chepstow, NP16 5EY
26/08/12 only Oakham Castle | Off Market Place, Oakham, LE15 6DX
finished Highcliffe Castle | Rothesay Drive, Highcliffe, Dorset, BH23 4LE
Showing until 19/08/12 Halls Croft | Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon, CV37 6BG
08/08/12 only mac | Cannon Hill Park,, Birmingham, B12 9QH
finished Beaudesert Park School | Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, GL6 9AF
finished The Gate Farmhouse | Itchington, Alveston, Bristol, BS35 3TA
10/08/12 only Cressing Temple | Witham Road, Braintree, CM77 8PD
finished Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre | Broadway, Caerleon, Newport, NP18 1AG
18/07/12 only Shaftesbury Abbey | Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 8JR
19/07/12 only Sand | Sidbury, Sidmouth, EX10 0QN
28/07/12 only Higham Hall | Bassenthwaite Lake, Cockermouth, Cumbria, CA13 9SH
01/08/12 only Pitmedden Garden | Ellon, Aberdeenshire, AB41 7PD
05/08/12 only Threave Garden | Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway, DG7 1RX
12/08/12 only Langar Hall | Langar, Nottingham, NG13 9HG
20/07/12 only Poulton House | Poulton, Gloucester, Cirencester, GL7 5HW
14/08/12 only Raglan Castle | Raglan, Monmouthshire, NP15 2BT
finished The Royal Crescent & York Gardens | Clifton, Bristol, BS8 4LN
finished Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre ... | Bosworth, Sutton Cheney, CV13 0AD
finished The Mill House | Netherbury, Dorset, DT6 5LX
23/08/12 only The Swan Theatre | The Moors, Worcester, WR1 3ED
finished Wolvesey Gardens | Bishops Palace, Winchester, SO239NB
finished Sterts theatre | Upton cross, Liskeard, PL14 9AZ
finished Frampton Court Estate | , Frampton on Severn, GL2 7EP
finished The Manor House Museum | Hall Green Road, West Bromwich, B71 2EA
11/08/12 only The Chequers | High Street, Yelden, Bedford, MK44 1AW
24/08/12 only Woodchester Mansion | Woodchester Mansion, Nympsfield, GL10 3TS
22/08/12 only Penlee Park Open Air Theatre | Morrab Road, Penzance, TR18 4HE
finished Whittington Castle | Castle Street, Whittington, SY11 4DF
finished Cothay Manor | Greenham, Wellington, TA21 0JR
finished Little Chalfont Village Hall | Cokes Lane, Little Chalfont, HP8 4UD
finished Kingston & Dormston Village Hall | Cockshot Lane, Dormston, WR7 4LB
finished Pontefract Castle | Castle Chain, Pontefract, WF8 1QH
finished Bartons Mill | Bartons Lane, Old Basing, Basingstoke, RG24 8QE
finished Cafe on the Rye | Strakers Road, Peckham Rye Common, London, SE15 3UA

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Marks and Spencer's frump-dump sends profits plummeting: the great bra hunt

So profits have plummeted at Marks and Spencer, former underwear holy of holies, fallen from grace and no longer a Mecca for women on a budget who want to look nicely turned out. Heads have rolled, hands are being wrung and people want to know WHYEEE?! I'm no delphic oracle but even I can answer that one.

Yesterday, I went looking for a bra. Nothing fancy, just something plain and black that keeps my bosoms from their downward trajectory. They're not huge — I've never tripped over them yet — and there are only two of them so you'd think the search would be straight forward.

Lingering in lingerie, I reckon 80 per cent of the acres of bras on display were of the horrible "preformed cup" variety, looking like they were modelled on Imelda Marcos's armoured tit-slings. You can rap out morse code on these things and be heard in the next postal district. Why do sistahs buy them? They give your bosoms a huge matronly udder shape, not the pert upward tilt of Hollywood starlets and Modesty Blaise cartoons which is the look I am broadly going for. The preform, on the udder hand, is an ageing look, one that fits with the frump-dump of dresses on the ground floor.

I want my nipples pointing skyward even if I have to resurrect Howard Hughes and his aeroplane technology to do it: I want maximum lift and thrust in a full-cup underwired bra. In black.

In Debenhams it was almost as bad but at least they had Playtex, still lifting and separating after all these years. Perfect fit, but only in cotton so the contraption gradually shrinks with every handwash and you end up with the dreaded breast quartet to go with your VPL and camel-toe. Mmmm, attractive. (Please, Playtex, make your lovely nylon model in black and I promise not to complain about the static shock.)

Then there are the Palazzo pants as championed by fashionistas such as Gok Wan, lovely comfortable wide legged pants that made me look long and lean. A year on from buying my first pair at M&S, I tried to replace them only to find some designer had had a fit and incorporated a myriad of pleats at the waistband, making them balloon out at the hip and making you look twice your size, totally defeating the object.

In the meantime, I'm saving up for the beautiful Rigby and Peller lacy black number that gives me the chesticles of a 14 year old — and she's not getting them back.


OK, 'nuff of the fripperies. We return you to politics and your usual service.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Madam Mao's Golden Oldies: Anna on the Chinese model operas, BBC R4

BBC Radio 4 11:30am, Tuesday 17th July 2012
Presented and co-written by Anna Chen
Produced by Mukti Jain Campion for Culture Wise

In Madam Mao's Golden Oldies, I revisit the Chinese Cultural Revolution Model Operas that I first heard as a child in the 1960s and 70s and discover how they are, somewhat surprisingly, enjoying a new lease of life.

Growing up as a London-born red-nappy kid with Beatles and Bowie as my soundtrack, I was occasionally dragged by my parents to the Chinese legation in Portland Place (it had lost its official embassy status due to the cold war ruckus) for screenings of the latest movie spectacular to emerge from the arts commissar, Chariman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. These were the Yangbanxi, the Eight Model Operas; films with titles such as The Red Detachment of Women and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy.

These state-sponsored works combined opera and ballet with simple plots about brave peasants uniting to defeat evil landlords, Japanese invaders and other enemies of the revolution. Heroes looked like heroes with rouged faces, kohl-lined eyes and great hair, while villains were easily identified by their sneaky demeanor and bad porn moustaches.

My Hollywood sensibility found these crude melodramas puzzling and somewhat turgid but then they weren't made for (relatively) pampered East End kids like me: they were made for the peasants and workers who had rarely if ever been represented in their own culture.

Within living memory, mass starvation, imperialist conquest and the horrors of the Japanese invasion had devastated the nation. Barely twenty years into its communist revolution, the population was struggling to get back onto its feet.

Madam Mao not only banned the traditional Beijing opera and their stories about emperors and princesses, but also cast out decadent western music and movies as being a corrupting influence on the masses. Quelle surprise when it later transpired that the former actress was fond of indulging her tastes in the privacy of her own screening room. But Jiang Qing was canny enough to harness the emotive power of these works with the help of the Chinese cultural intelligentsia who hadn't fallen out of favour.

In the programme, a variety of people who were intimately involved in the model operas recount their experience. Among them, Anchee Min, author of Red Azalea, had been plucked from working in the fields because she was used to "carrying 300 pounds of manure". Jingdong Cai is now conductor at Stanford but learnt his trade in Madam Mao's army of young musicians

Madam Mao's favourite films? The Sound of Music and Jane Eyre. No, not the classic Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version, but the crappy George C Scott remake. Now, what does that tell you about arbiters of taste?

BBC Radio 4 11:30am, Tuesday 17th July 2012
Presented and co-written by Anna Chen
Produced by Mukti Jain Campion for Culture Wise
Available for seven days after broadcast on iPlayer

Before I say "enough of me", if you are around, I'm giving a talk at the China In Britain event on Wednesday 18th July at Westminster Uni, Regent St, with poetry, music and everythang. 4.45pm. Free but you have to book.

And keep an eye open for my upcoming collection of poetry, REACHING FOR MY GNU, out as an ebook on Aaaargh! Press very soon.

Monday 9 July 2012

REACHING FOR MY GNU: Anna's poetry book out soon

Coming soon to an eReader near you, my first collection of poetry, the very fine "Reaching for my Gnu" on Aaaargh Press.

Designed by Paul Anderson, adorned with my favourite pic of me by Sukey Parnell, and with an intro by Charles Shaar Murray.

Watch this space ...

Friday 6 July 2012

Shiny phallus dominates London: Shard puts Tyrell Corporation in the shade

Children, I was there when the Tyrell Corporation opened its mega-building in London, dominating the city skyline with its architectural statement of intent.

Skynet were the first occupants of the tower and now look where we are: terminated by the technocrats who serve the elite, skulls cracked under tank treads, children barely surviving in whatever cracks they can find in our crumbling society.

But what a pretty laser show they put on, a fitting match for the Unethical Olympics and the end of the Elizabethan era of plenty that came to a close with the Diamond Jubilee that year, 2012. If only we'd known that the lasers would soon be replaced by Skynet's working models, first tested out on a populace taken by surprise by missiles placed on the roofs of tower-blocks occupied by people who'd once had jobs and had shared in the wealth of the nation in their own humble way.

They told us it was all the fault of angry youth, the feckless over-breeding poor, the elderly who clung to life for too long, the dole-scroungers (but not the royal family or the lucky few at the top who resented paying for the shirkers in the form of tax) and the immigrants who worked for crumbs to shore up the remnants of our infrastructure. And then they set the Cyberdyne Systems T101s on us, the ones who looked like Jeremy Paxman and Allegra Stratton, only their hatchet faces and thousand-yard stares giving the game away.

The Mayans may not have been totally correct in predicting 2012 as being the year the world ended but it certainly felt that way.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Greg Palast's Vultures' Picnic UK launch: first videos

Great news; we're finally getting the videos of Greg Palast's inspirational week in London posted.

Anna Chen MC introduces the evening: "Capitalism's not dead, it just smells funny," she said paraphrasing the great Frank Zappa's comment about jazz. "Capitalism is mutating and going places only, this time, it's not taking us with it."

Greg Palast's talk covering who's backing Mitt Romney (Vultures, of course); BP corruption, cheap cement and prior blowouts; how the Euro was designed to bring down the European economy and free up public services for private take-overs. Part I:

Greg Palast talk Part II.
Greg Palast talk Part III.

Writer Warren Ellis speaking at the launch:

Thanks to Oliver Shykles who organised the event and Paul Anderson who came and wielded my camera so well.

Videos to come:
Panel discussion with John Hilary (War On Want), Nick Dearden (Jubilee Debt Campaign) and journalist Laurie Penny.
Greg Palast's Housmans talk.