Number 1 in an occasional series: No-one is allowed to talk during Doctor Who.
Something I didn’t know until I met my husband is that the correct way to watch Doctor Who is in complete silence. It’s not just talking that is banned, gasping, squealing and exclamations of fear are also frowned upon. Even if the episode is way scary, like the one with those blinky angels or that spooky little kid with a gas mask wandering around saying “Are you my Mummy?”, you must to stifle your eeks, oh nos, and blimeys in case you talk over an important plot point.(I’ll be honest I don’t know who turned out to be that kid’s Mummy, so perhaps DW silent viewers have a point.) You must also muffle any coughing or sneezing, and where possible cut out any unnecessarily noisy respiration. “You’re doing the breathing again” is a real quote from our marriage that I am thinking of making into a sampler for our living room wall. (For the record I had a cold and it was that or die due to lack of oxygen.) Doctor Who must be enjoyed in a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop, although obviously noisy crafts like embroidery and knitting are not permitted during DW, so that sampler will have to wait.
On the flipside, in order to view the Great British Bake Off properly you are invited to gasp, smack your lips, shout ‘yum!’ and give short whistles of admiration throughout the duration of the programme. The other viewer can either join in with this noisy appreciation or agree to must make no comment at the cacophony of the other. The same rule applies to One Born Every Minute. Gasping, wincing and audible sobbing are an entirely appropriate response from the viewer, although shouting ‘yum!’ whilst a pregnant woman squeezes another person out of her foof is really inappropriate in most cultures including our own.
And finally if upon returning home from work you find your loved one watching the Hairy Bikers, which they then hastily turn off and look a bit guilty. This will be because they are ashamed to admit that they have been voluntarily watching some of the most fake bonhomie ever caught on camera and not because they fancy old fat blokes from the north-east. And no amount of shouting “Why-eye! Stroke my lovely beard!” will get them to say otherwise.
First published in Third Way magazine, July/August 2012
The first official Olympic mascot was Waldi, a multi-coloured Dachshund created for the 1972 Munich Games by graphic artist Otl Aicher. Waldi proved so popular in the run up to the games that organisers decided to redesign the route of the marathon to resemble his shape.
Whilst rerouting an event isn’t a requirement the International Olympic Committee’s official guidelines for mascots are incredibly complex. An official Olympic mascot should “be the concrete form to the Olympic spirit of participation, solidarity and fair play; spread the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship; promote the history and culture of the host city; and give the event a festive atmosphere.” Unsurprising with such a complex brief a majority of the 21 mascots created for summer and winter games since 1972 have been regarded as design disasters. As anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity or Eucharistic Transubstantiation will know, explaining several ideas clearly through one object or symbol is tough.
Many mascots have failed to catch on because they are just too complicated. For example Izzy was the first computer-generated mascot, created for Atlanta 96. He/she/it was a “Whatisit”, a shape shifter “eager to make friends with people around the world.” It seems people didn’t want to make friends with “an annoying blue sperm wearing sneakers.”
On several occasions artists trying to incorporate indigenous culture into their designs have often been accused of disrespect and outright racism. The artist who designed the mascots for the Beijing Olympics even claimed the job was cursed. His Feng Shui inspired characters are said to have caused natural disasters in run up to the games and two heart attacks for the artist himself.
Other designers have played safe, stripping their designs right back, thereby creating rather boring mascots. For example Amik the Beaver for Montreal ’76 had none of the cuteness you might expect from Canada’s national animal, as he was an expressionist black blob that looked like you had a stain on your t-shirt. Haakon and Kristen at Lillehammer ‘94 were just two local children wandering around in traditional Viking dress. And even Disney couldn’t get it right when they designed Sam the Eagle for the Los Angeles games in 1984. Remember him? No. He was just a bird in a hat.
The most popular Olympic mascot ever is widely regarded to be Barcelona 92’s Cobi the dog. Critics initially derided his cubist inspired, flat-faced design, but children and tourists couldn’t get enough of him and toys and merchandise flew off shelves. He even had his own TV series, which ran long after the games had finished.
The Vancouver 2010 games had a whole team of cute creations led by Quatchi the Sasquatch. One, a marmot called Mukmuk was designated by the designers as a sidekick and so didn’t feature on merchandise. Mukmuk fans started a campaign for him to be awarded full mascot status. Organisers eventually bowed to pressure and issued official Mukmuk toys. (Proof that where there’s Mukmuk, there’s brass.)
Ultimately mascots are a way to make money. Get your mascot right and you can bring in over 25% of the cost of the games in merchandising revenue. When the London 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville were unveiled, games chief Lord Coe said “We created our mascots for children. By linking young people to the values of sport, (they) will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be”. All very noble, Seb, but it’s not entirely true is it? The mascots need to appeal to kids, so they pester their mum into buying them the lunchbox, the t-shirt and the limited edition Sheffield steel cutlery set
The critical consensus is that for London 2012 once again the Olympic mascots are over-designed. The fact that each mascot has one eye, which is also a camera has an uncomfortable resonance with CCTV, particularly for a games that began it’s planning process amidst the 7/7 attacks. At their unveiling that Lord Coe said the mascots would set the tone for London 2012, seemingly that tone is Orwellian.
Olympic mascots are iconic as cute cheerleaders, a family friendly way into sport and a demonstration as to why design by committee is never a good idea. Whether Wenlock or Mandeville merchandise will be overflowing the bargain bins on 10th September remains to be seen.
First published in Third Way magazine, June 2012.
The title Please God, find me a husband! sounds like a terrifying Christian self-help book, or a jokey tome to buy your single friend for her thirtieth birthday, thankfully Simone Lia’s new book is neither of these. It is a joyful, hilarious, life affirming story “for spinsters, seekers of enlightenment and lovers of graphic novels.”
Simone Lia’s illustrations are delightfully simple with bold felt tip lines, a nod to her background in children’s books, but do not be mistaken this autobiographical story is undoubtedly for adults. Lia is expert at dealing with heavy weight subjects using the seeming lightweight form of the cartoon. She is a friendly, self-deprecating storyteller, who tackles the difficult and emotional territory of faith and relationships with humour and honesty. In Please God… she deals with singleness, belief and childhood trauma via guitar playing trees, muffin baking nuns and God riding a BMX. Her honest and open narrative style ensures that despite the sweet illustrations, the book is neither cutesy nor vapid.
The story begins with 33 year old Simone walking through central London. She has just been dumped…worse than that dumped by email. She tells God that if he wants her to get married or be happy, then he needs to get a move on. Surprisingly God answers her prayer through the lyrics of an INXS song! And so begins our heroine’s “Adventure with God”- a spiritual journey that takes Lia half way round the world to Australia by way of rainy Wales where she serves as ‘a temporary nun’. Along the way she has encounters with a Crocodile Dundee look alike, a rather disappointing hermit and on several occasions, God himself.
Lia is a likeable heroine. She’s an ordinary Londoner who happens to be a Christian Some of her friends happen to be nuns, (fun ones who sing along to The Sound of Music in the car). Her faith is ordinary and matter of fact. She talks to God when she is on her bike. She constantly questions whether she is merely deluding herself.
Christian readers will recognise in Simone’s story their own shortcomings laid out in excruciating and hilarious detail. For example Lia takes part in a silent meditation. After three wordless frames, we see her thoughts, she is thinking about lunch. By the bottom of the page, she is completely distracted, looking around at the other people praying – “I don’t think I’m praying right.”
Throughout the book Lia playfully uses the comic frame format to add an extra dimension to the narrative. Her pictures underline or cleverly undermine the written words. For example Lia is disappointed that nothing dramatic happened during her retreat. She had been hoping for – “a drama or a conflict that was miraculously resolved and fun to draw.” This frame is of course illustrated by a drawing of an exciting and miraculous drama.
For every sweet squeaking suitcase or Roger Hargreave-esque snake saying “Harrumph”, there are more challenging images and episodes exploring the struggle of personal faith. A single frame of a scribbled tree, eloquently expresses the seeming loneliness of prayer for example. A particularly moving sequence features Lia imagining herself walking around the streets of Jericho in Biblical times, and she, instead of Zacchaeus, gets called down from the tree as the real sinner.
The real joy of this book is that Simone Lia is not afraid to tell a story that is so uncompromisingly honest that it has none of the convenience of being neat and easy to tell. This fact is further underlined in a rather meta scene where Simone is pictured sitting in church worrying about her book proposal – for the book we are reading – her publisher has suggested that it’s content might not have “commercial potential”.
Fortunately for us Lia persuaded Jonathan Cape to let her tell her story, her way. Please God, find me a husband! explains what it is like to be an ordinary person of faith struggling with singleness in a way that is both moving and honest, witty and endearing, as well as accessible and appealing to a wide audience of all faiths and none.
First published in Third Way magazine, June 2012
On Wednesday 10 October 2012 analogue television will be switched off in Northern Ireland, completing the digital switch over for the whole of the UK. This new dawn of better pictures, more channels and greater interaction marks the end of Ceefax.
The BBC began broadcasting its Ceefax service in 1974. For several years engineers had been developing a text transmission service to provide closed caption subtitling for deaf and hearing-impaired viewers. Using the ‘spare’ lines of a television broadcast, engineers found they were able to send text files quickly and efficiently. Having proved that this process required no additional bandwidth and had no impact on picture quality, BBC executives decided to use the system to make other information available to viewers as text files, enabling viewers to “see facts” – hence the name.
The initial service contained 30 pages of simple linear information such as stock and farming prices as well as subtitles and news. Within two years Ceefax had doubled the number of pages it offered which included a children’s page and “a shopping guide for housewives”.
As it’s popularity grew the BBC news department recruited staff to work solely on Ceefax’s news output, recognising that the service was not just a complimentary add-on for it’s output, but an integral part of it’s current affairs broadcasting, available to viewers 24 hours a day.
By the early 80s, the growing use of teletext by TV stations around the world made it possible for correspondents with the right technical support to update their local system remotely. The BBC used this technology for the first time during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when a BBC correspondent at the Olympic stadium put the day’s results directly into the Ceefax system. Seconds later these results were available to viewers across the UK.
Making a change to a teletext page is fast, as the system does not require pages to be uploaded so changes are almost instant. Over the years Ceefax and it’s commercial siblings ITV Oracle and 4tel have often been the first place that news stories have broken, for example Ceefax was the first UK news source to confirm Princess Diana’s death at 4am on a Sunday morning in 1997. However there have been problems with such an instant system. In 1994 during a BBC news department rehearsal for the death of the Queen, Ceefax news pages were publicly updated with the news of the monarch’s death. These pages were taken down in 30 seconds, and an apology was posted, but several thousand people were thought to have read the story.
By the mid 90s there were 2.5 million teletext-enabled televisions in the UK. More than a third of the population was checking teletext at least once a week and Ceefax was hosting 2000 pages of content. Over on ITV the commercial broadcasters paid for their teletext services by hosting content from advertisers. Their most visited pages were Teletext Holidays, which before the internet were the best place to get a cheap flight or a last minute holiday.
The teletext system is not affected by the number of viewers accessing a page, so even as the internet began to take hold as a primary source for breaking news, Ceefax continued to play a vital role. During the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks online news sites crashed due to being overwhelmed traffic, at which point Ceefax became a reliable and up-to-the-minute source for both the public and broadcast journalists.
The bulk of Ceefax’s content is already available via the Red Button on digital television. Sadly the Red Button pages won’t be illustrated by blocky at times indecipherable graphic illustrations, planned out on graph paper by computer programmers. However viewers no longer have to remember a random three digit number to access the information they require and finding out football results wont require a nail biting wait for 24 pages to scroll round painfully slowly to the one with your team on it. In the 80s 2000 pages of information seemed overwhelming, now a Google search for ‘Ceefax’ itself comes up with 557,000 results! Ceefax’s time has come. There is a season, turn, turn, turn, except on Ceefax you’ve probably got to wait about 10 minutes for the page to actually turn.
First published in Third Way magazine, April 2012.
Preheat oven to 190˚C. Pierce film lid. Place on baking tray in the middle of oven for 20 minutes. During this cooking time take the opportunity to do modern stuff like tweeting about how hungry you are, playing Fruit Ninja on your phone or watching a quarter of an episode of Masterchef. (Oh the irony.) Peel back film and stir. Cook for a further eight and a half minutes. Leave to stand for 2 minutes before serving. During this time compare the picture on the packet with the gloop in the container. Feel mild disappointment. Consume.
The popularity of ready meals began in the 1970s. For the first time since the war over 50 % of the female population were in full time employment. Helpfully, innovations in freezing, hydration, and boil-in-the-bag technology made it possible for working women to go out to work all day, and still get a meal on the table in the evening. (Men didn’t cook in the 1970s, they were too busy growing moustaches and going on strike.) Cooking from scratch represented drudgery and old fashioned inconvenience. Ready meals were the liberated way to cook for your loved ones, and by the middle of the decade two thirds of British households had a freezer. Working women were able to have their cake – specifically a Findus crispy pancake – and eat it.
Thirty years later the ready meal remains an essential part of a vibrant, upwardly mobile lifestyle for both men and women. It is still the culinary solution for the “time poor, but cash rich”. At the turn of the twentieth century, a young professional would pay a house keeper or valet to have an evening meal ready for him upon his return from the office; today, a similar percentage of the income of the professional classes are spent on convenience food.
Ready meals are big business and producers are keen to keep their brands aspirational and prices high. The range of meals in even the smallest Sainsbury’s Local is vast. There is something to tempt every appetite, palate or waistline. Sure, beans on toast are quick and easy but in the same amount of time, with slightly less hassle, you could be sitting down to a slow-cooked Moroccan tagine with apricot and cumin couscous – doesn’t that sound glamorous and worth paying for? The names of the ranges hammer home the aspirational marketing. Who wants to eat a Basics fish pie when it is on the shelf right next to a Taste The Difference fish pie? Who wants to eat a boring old Essentials Spaghetti Bolognese when it’s next to what purports to be the “Finest” Spaghetti Bolognese. (One suspects there are few thousand Italian housewives spitting feathers at this claim.)
The modern ready meal is vibrant, colourful convenient, organic, healthy, exotic, lovingly created by Delia and infused with Heston’s sweat, but it still has the same image problem as a 1970s plate of grey boil in the bag Cod Mornay. A ready meal is still a meal for one, a meal for the inept non-cook, the workaholic and the singleton.
Tesco could throw in an ambient jazz CD, the Sunday papers, and a knackered Scrabble set to go with your Gastropub style Aberdeen Angus Chilli con carne but the fact is you would still be eating it on your own, sat on the sofa.
In this day and age it is possible to eat an exciting and tasty meal every day of the week. The supermarkets can provide everything except hospitality and friendship. That’s the bit we need to do ourselves. The Bible tells us to offer hospitality to strangers – nowadays thanks to the ready meal you don’t even need to be able to cook to do this. Next time you invite the neighbours round, remember it’s not the food, it’s the hospitality and you might just be entertaining angels with a Jamie’s Pukka Italian Lasagne and a ready-to-bake garlic baguette
First published in Third Way magazine, November 2011.
Next time you hear some smart Alice saying she doesn’t believe man landed on the moon, be sure to remind her about smoke detectors and digital thermometers, cordless drills and water filtration units that save lives in developing countries. That’s an awful lot of real technology and innovation developed alongside something just faked up on a back lot in Burbank by Stanley Kubrick. Remind her that our lives today would be very different if scientists in the 50s and 60s hadn’t focused their efforts on the ludicrous notion of getting human beings into orbit. She wouldn’t be bouncing around in her cushion soled trainers fastened with Velcro or bouncing on her memory foam bed; indeed if it weren’t for the developments in textile innovation brought about by the space race, several other things would be bouncing around too. When Neil Armstrong first stood on the moon, he was making one giant leap for mankind and one minimised wobble for the rest of us.
Lycra was developed in 1959 by C. L. Sandquist and JosephShivers, two scientists working for the Du Pont Company in Waynesboro, Virginia. 20 of the 21 layers of the space suits worn by the Apollo crew were made by Du Pont, who had already developed neoprene and nylon in the 1930s. Shivers and Sandquist spent a decade developing polyurethane-polyurea copolymer, a new hard-wearing, lightweight, stretchable fibre which Du Pont wisely renamed Lycra. The filaments in this new fibre were found to be so strong, they could be stretched to seven times their original length before springing back into shape. Lycra could also be blended easily with other fibres, making fabrics that were easy to launder and longer lasting. These unique properties made Lycra an essential for the wear and tear of early space flight, and a gift to modern people who don’t like ironing much.
By the late sixties most professional athletes and swimmers were wearing Lycra. It was not only easy to move in, but also light weight, breathable and quick drying. Textile scientists found that its molecular structure allowed it to take up dyes very easily, so by the time the keep fit boom of the late 70s and early eighties came round, Lycra was available in a myriad of colours. (Thank goodness! Diana Moran doing lunges on breakfast telly as “The Off-White Goddess” just wouldn’t have been the same…)
Even today Lycra remains unparalleled as the most practical fabric you could possibly wear for sport and exercise. Unfortunately it is also unparalleled as the least flattering. By stretching up to 700% it helpfully draws attention to every curve, lump and protuberance.
Countless resolutions to go to the gym have faltered when people have caught sight of themselves in their new Lycra kit and felt too exposed to leave the changing room – making Lycra’s European slogan “Clothes that love you back” feel somewhat insincere. It seems fitting (no pun intended) that Du Pont, who started out as producers of gunpowder and explosives continue to instill terror with their products.
Fortunately Lycra’s stretchiness also means it provides the solution for those who haven’t been going to the gym. Men can purchase a Lycra-heavy man girdle, or “mirdle”, to tame their beer gut into a tidy six pack, whilst women have a confusing range of “shape wear” and “control” garments to choose from. These terrifyingly constricting items – essentially tight tubes of Lycra – have stern warnings on their labels stating “Do not wear for more than eight hours.” A Victorian woman fainting after squeezing herself into a whalebone corset is not that dissimilar to a modern woman losing all feeling in her extremities after pouring herself into Spanx.
Lycra is a contradiction, aid to both the fit and the fat. It’s your best friend hiding your lumps and bumps and your worst enemy making you feel exposed. As with all enemies, Christians are advised to turn the other cheek – the great thing about wearing Lycra is you have got the full four cheeks to choose from.
First published in Third Way magazine, September 2011. Guest article covering for regular columnist.
Recent embarrassing things that have caused me to cry: 1) Finishing the last Harry Potter book. 2) A youtube video of a primary choir singing Walk Like an Egyptian. It’s had 24,000 hits. Half of those are me watching it repeatedly through tear streaked glasses. 3) Wenlock and Mandeville the Olympic mascots jumping up and down waving at people in a shopping centre. 3) The poster for Kung Fu Panda Two.
This list is not a cry for help, it is a ‘shout out’ to all the other criers and weepers out there, who like me are sometimes embarrassed to find themselves having a blub at something entirely ridiculous. I suspect that given the state of the world that there are quite a lot of us out there, all blinking a lot and hoping no-one on the bus notices.
As a nation we are experts in stoicism, taught from an early age the merits of holding it in and not making a fuss. These skills have become essential now that we have 24 hour rolling news and streams of firsthand tweets and blogs from those directly affected by disaster, injustice or violence. I don’t think we have become more callous or less caring, but with such an onslaught of harrowing information to wade through, we need to filter our emotions and bottle things up a bit just to get on with our daily lives.
So whilst the stiff upper lip is alive and well in Britain today, I would like to encourage the use of another essential tool for helping us cope with the state of the world – ‘the quiet cathartic cry at something entirely arbitrary.’ Get involved people! Find a tenuous excuse to have a blub and then let the catharsis begin! You’ll feel loads better.
As the great philosophers Aristotle and my Nan both so profoundly said “It’s better out than in.” And what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be that mad woman crying tears of joy because a sweaty person inside an Olympic mascot costume waved at you in Bluewater.
I find it’s best if you just go with it and don’t try and rationalise why you crying. Avoid thoughts like “Whilst I am impressed with how realistically fluffy the artists at Pixar have managed to make this spherical panda look on this poster for a film I am never going to see, I am not entirely sure why I am welling up?” Shush! Just let it out my friend.
Need inspiration for your tears? I have been collecting together youtube of amateur choirs singing cover versions – choirsmakemecry.tumblr.com If you don’t feel moved by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir singing “Everybody Hurts” seek medical attention immediately!
Finally it’s also important not to let guilt creep in. Avoid thoughts like “How dare I weep about wizards dying in a kids book, when I haven’t wept for the famine in West Africa?” Because dude, here’s the secret – those tears are the same tears… just delayed. So let them come, guilt free. Let it out. And then be sure to pray for the important stuff, not the wizards.
Sarah Dean has the curated of the cathartic website – choirsmakemecry.tumblr.com