Invoking Sumai

"I invoke Sumai!!

“I invoke Sumai!”

Watching Game of Thrones intently, Frank discovers an extremely useful rhetorical device…

There is a scene in the second series of Game Of Thrones where Daenarys Targaryen and her raggle-taggle band of Dothraki followers, having struggled across the vast and desolate Red Wastes, their food and water supplies exhausted, seek entrance to the walled city of Qarth. They are met, outside the gates, by the Thirteen, the ruling council, whose oleaginous spokesman refuses to let them enter. As the Mother of Dragons points out, not unreasonably, this dooms them to certain death. The spokesman is unmoved. How to resolve the impasse?

At this point, another member of the Thirteen, who has been lurking at the back of the group, steps forward. When his own arguments in favour of allowing in the travellers fail, he announces “I invoke Sumai!” He then unsheathes his dagger and slices a nasty cut in his own hand. Now the gates of Qarth are thrown open, and Daenarys and her “Dothraki savages” are ushered in, and saved.

I was going to praise writer George R. R. Martin for this touch of brilliance, until I learned – from one of the terrifyingly erudite websites devoted to the minutiae of the Game Of Thrones universe – that the scene is absent from the original books, and was devised for the television series. No explanation is ever offered for Sumai, or what precisely its invocation might mean in any other circumstances, and nobody ever refers to it again. Yet I am lost in admiration for it as a narrative technique to keep the story chugging along. I shall use it myself, and commend it to any other writer who reaches a sticking point in their story. The bit with the dagger and the blood can be modified, or left out entirely. But is there a single work of fiction that could not be improved by having a character, at some point, declaiming portentously “I invoke Sumai!”? I think not.

I have prepared a supply of slips of paper on which is typed “I invoke Sumai!”, said followed by a blank space. I intend, shortly, to work my way systematically through the volumes of fiction on the Key bookshelves, affixing with glue a slip at a point in each book where the narrative threatens to get stuck in a cul de sac, and then writing in an apt character name. The effect would be jarring if the phrase were to be spoken invariably by rogue member of the Thirteen Xaro Xhoan Doxos. Far better that it is put into the mouth of a character with whom we have grown familiar in each particular book, say for example Humbert Humbert or Elizabeth Bennett or Josef K. or Bartleby the scrivener.

Invoking Sumai may also come in handy in real life. I am sure there are times, for example when you are leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a sophisticated cocktail party, when the conversation palls and you are lost for words. Now, all you need do to avert social discomfort is to announce “I invoke Sumai!”. The ice will be broken, and stay broken, if I am correct.

As an addendum, here is an example of the way in which invoking Sumai can liven up the most tedious of evenings.

A country road. A tree. Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again) Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart) I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.

ESTRAGON : (interrupting) I invoke Sumai!

Enter a big band orchestra, crooners, chorus girls, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, clowns, etc, who proceed to put on some tiptop variety entertainment for the next two hours.


‘Stupid is Funny': Rik Mayall and The Young Ones

Rik Mayall (left) as Rick in The Young Ones with Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Rya

‘It ridiculed humour itself’…A week on from the untimely death of Rik Mayall, Professor Nick Groom pays tribute to that peerlessly stupid yet brilliant sitcom The Young Ones

In retrospect, it all seems so simple: a sitcom based in a dilapidated student house, showcasing upcoming young comedians. But that’s hardly recognisable as The Young Ones – which most people remember by the noisome exploits of its principal characters. They lived in ridiculous squalour, ate only lentils, made embarrassingly puerile jokes (in ironic postmodern fashion, of course), smashed up everything, and spent a lot of time shouting ‘You utter, utter bastard’ at each other. 

The Young Ones is a sitcom, but a punked-up, magic-realist sitcom. Completely grotesque yet painfully accurate, it is a monstrous parody of students and the student lifestyle – and don’t anyone dare say that they live ‘just like the Young Ones’, unless whenever they are about to have a party their houses are half-demolished by gigantic ham sandwiches discarded by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Nevertheless, the four undergraduates are all embarrassingly familiar characters. Rik (Rik Mayall) reckons he’s a ‘right on’ anarchist and the people’s poet – in fact, he’s a sanctimonious and self-centred little prig with the emotional maturity of a sniggering thirteen-year-old; Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) is a psychopathic, headbanging medical student who sports a row of studs in his forehead and keeps a Glaswegian hamster called SPG (Special Patrol Group); Neil (Nigel Planer) is the fall guy, a miserable hippy always shuffling around and complaining about how ‘heavy’ everything is; and Mike (Christopher Ryan) is a midget conman evidently blackmailing the university’s vice-chancellor and living in a fantasy world of cool in which he effortlessly hobnobs with celebrities and sex kittens.

Together, these four explosively incompatible housemates barely do anything but bicker and fight about the most excruciatingly mundane things – paying the bills, going to the laundrette, borrowing a coin for the phone, answering the door. It is positively Beckettian in its banality – except that around this black hole of mindless boredom and acute pettiness revolves a mad universe of the strangest and most inexplicable events. Their whole hallucinatory world is teemingly alive: the fruit in the fridge makes cheap sexual innuendoes, the toilet eats bog-brushes, one of Vyvyan’s socks escapes and has to be beaten to death with a frying pan. The weirdest people come and go: members of the Balowski family (landlord, party drunk, international arms dealer, medieval jester – all played by Alexei Sayle); two shipwrecked men who are holidaying on a raft under a lightbulb in the cellar; Cinderella, who stays at their party past midnight and promptly turns into a pumpkin; the ghosts of two decapitated Elizabethans who get their heads mixed up; a premature Easter Bunny; and a teapot genie who gives Neil six pairs of arms. ‘The nuttiest things happen in this crazy house’, as Rik puts it at one point, aping a cretinously zany commentator: an unexploded atom bomb lands in front of the fridge, the lads discover that their wardrobe leads to the magical kingdom of Narnia, they appear on University Challenge against Footlights College, Oxbridge (despite Vyv losing his head on the way there when he oh-so rebelliously leans out of the train window), and the whole house is transported back to the Middle Ages. This last elicits the comment ‘Oh, who cares?’; they are most concerned that they might miss Scooby Doo.

Noisy, stupid, fantastically odd, and still unbelievably funny, The Young Ones was the ‘alternative’ comedy scene’s rambunctious coming of age. Most of the performers came out of London’s Comedy Store club, which was compèred by Sayle, and later by Ben Elton, and gave a platform to a new breed of aspiring, radical and subversive comedians. Mayall and Edmondson, for example, originally developed their ultra-violent slapstick, which features heavily in the show, as the Comedy Store’s ‘Dangerous Brothers’. But until The Young Ones, there had been hardly any television exposure of this edgy new comedy.

They tackled the new medium by deconstructing the whole concept of that TV standby, the sitcom. Mayall and Lise Mayer wrote the scripts, Elton pulled their stream-of-consciousness into shape, and they managed to combine situation comedy with the cabaret format of the Comedy Store, thereby introducing dozens of new comedians to the nation. But at the same time they created something that was so knowing, so self-aware and so self-mocking that it actually ridiculed humour itself. You laugh at the jokes, you laugh (again, of course, in ironic postmodern fashion) at the laboured jokes which mock the imbecility of mainstream comedy, and you laugh at the scathing satires of traditional sitcoms: ultimately, you laugh at the whole idea of people laughing at anything at all. It’s dizzying.

The post-punk generation needed to rebel against the old folks with something more than music and fashion, and The Young Ones did feel, if only for a few months, like the new rock’n’roll – not least because the show’s entirely spurious musical slot featured happening bands like Madness and Motörhead. The Goons, the Pythons, even The Goodies may have been as out of control as The Young Ones, but by the 1980s they were all firmly Establishment: the grand old tradition of anarchic British humour. Everyone from your father to Prince Charles told you to listen to the Goon Show, Python was a very English institution one followed with an awed and often baffled admiration, and parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles would merrily endorse comedy from Fawlty Towers to Benny Hill. Yes, they were funny, but we young ones needed our own comedy – and The Young Ones was just that. Obsessed with zits, crapping and wanking, like the evergreen comic Viz it was in-your-face rude – which is precisely why our parents never got it.

Talking of parents, the hippy Neil Pye’s mum and dad once managed to visit him and his housemates, arriving in the middle of a street riot during which some joker has impaled a head to their front door. The episode (‘Sick’) is typical. All the characters – from the Young Ones themselves to the blazers-and-British-Legion Mr and Mrs Pye to a police officer who arrives simply to hit Rik with a chair – cheerfully admit that this is just a TV show.

Neil’s Mum: You have brought shame on your family, Neil. I daren’t show my face at Lady Fanshaw’s bridge evenings, now that you’ve taken up with these television people. I mean, what kind of monsters are you? I mean, The Young Ones. Well, it all sounds very good, doesn’t it? But just look around you. It’s trash!

[She smashes a chair.]

I mean… even Triangle has better furniture than you do!

Mike: I think you’ll find that was specially designed to fall apart like that, Mrs Pye. Rick was going to get hit over the head with it in the next scene.

This out-of-telly experience then continues with a sharp parody of Grange Hill, before the opening sequence of The Good Life rolls. Vyvyan spectacularly tears down the screen, declaring, ‘No! No! No! We’re not watching the bloody Good Life! Bloody, bloody, bloody! I hate it! It’s so bloody nice! Felicity “Treacle” Kendall and Richard “Sugar-flavoured-snot” Briers! …They’re just a couple of reactionary stereotypes, confirming the myth that everyone in Britain is a lovable, middle-class eccentric – and I HATE THEM!’ Rik, self-deluding anarchist and card-carrying Cliff Richard fan that he is, returns us to TV-land, declaring his love for Ms Kendall. The storyline then digresses into a cross between Macbeth and The Good Life, in which Rik accidentally kills Neil. Rik hides the body in manure, and is tortured all night by the voice of his conscience (which is so loud it keeps Vyvyan awake), before Neil returns from the grave – or rather Neils do: under the compost, Neil has germinated like a seed and grown into three. As the Neils greet the terrified Rik, the entire set suddenly disappears to reveal Neil’s parents and Brian Damage, ‘a violent and highly dangerous escaped criminal madman’, waving and blowing kisses to the studio audience from a glitzy stage while a continuity announcer declares, ‘Good evening, and welcome to Nice Time’. The Young Ones themselves frantically jump up and down flashing V-signs and trying to get into shot as the credits roll. Evidently nothing makes sense once your parents arrive.

It is not simply surreal, it is purely bizarre. And there’s another element that makes this so great, so British, and so funny: embarrassment. Embarrassment has always been a key feature of British comedy, and The Young Ones surely takes it as far as it can go. Neil’s parents coming to tea is embarrassing enough, but who can forget Rik’s party, where he forbids everyone to drink before the party starts, sucks up to his trendy sociology tutor like a total bloody swot, and thinks that a tampon is a carefully wrapped present – a mouse hiding in a telescope? Or Rik’s pretend girlfriend: having woken up in bed with a girlie, he gives a blow-by-blow account of their night’s adventures to his male housemates (which Mike records on tape), before she appears and reveals that the entire encounter is entirely fictitious. Rik is condemned to wear a sign around his neck reading ‘I am a Virgin’.

Even as I laugh, I still cringe. The Young Ones is less the successor to George and Mildred than the bastard love-child of Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett. It is wild comedy based on endless and obsessive non-sequiturs and cataclysmic moments of fatal misunderstanding which generate their own crazy logic. Stupid is funny and, in this case, very stupid is abso-bloody-lutely hilarious.

On the awfulness of 1970s television


Continuing our 1970s theme, Steerforth recalls that decade’s obsession with bizarre dance shows and other strange telly…

The above picture shows the Easter story, expressed through the medium of dance.

How anyone thought it was a good idea to tell the story of the crucifixion of Jesus through dance and mime, performed by the cast of Space 1999, is beyond me. But it seems that this sort of thing wasn’t unusual in the 1970s.

I found this 1975 ITV handbook recently:


Published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, it’s a wonderful snapshot of commercial broadcasting in Britain during 1974, packed full of articles and photos (with a nerdtastic section on IBA transmitter stations).

It also clearly shows that television execs in the 1970s had an unhealthy obsession with dance…











What was going on? Did they think that people really wanted to see this, or was it just cheap television?

In 1974, I was in bed by eight o’clock, so I missed the worst excesses of this obsession with dancing. However, I do have vague memories of men in trouser suits poncing around to Up, Up and Away, along with the occasional ‘rock opera’ (which my parents always turned off in disgust because the cast looked as if they were on drugs).

The BBC’s hands weren’t entirely clean either: Seaside Special, The Rolf Harris Show and just about any other live entertainment show had some awful dance group (naturally I exclude the gorgeous Pan’s People from this diatribe).

At least today, dancing is restricted to a small core of programmes, for those who like that sort of thing. Also, those grim, po-faced contemporary dance groups, who did things like depict the Jarrow Crusade through the medium of movement, have now been replaced by streetdance and hip hop.

So next time you find yourself complaining that television isn’t what it used to be, buy a boxed set of Homeland and look at this listing for BBC1 on April 16th, 1975.

1230 – Day and Night, including Crime Line.

1255 – News

1300 – Pebble Mill, including Family Advice with Claire Rayner.

1345 – Fingerbobs

1400 – Closedown

1558 – Regional News (Except London/SE)

1600 – Play School

1625 – Boris the Bold

1635 – Jackanory, with Judy Dench

1650 – The Monkees

1715 – If You Were Me (new series). People find out about each other’s lives. Today: David from Plymouth and Julie from Puerto Rico.

1740 – Magic Roundabout

1745 – News

1800 – Nationwide

1850 – Film: The Lion and the Horse (1952). Starring Steve Cochrane and Wildfire, the wonder horse. Wholesome family film about a man and his horse.

2010 – Survivors, starring Carolyn Seymour, Lucy Fleming, Talfryn Thomas in The Fourth Horseman.

2100 – News

2125 – The Budget, with Sir Geoffrey Howe, Shadow Chancellor.

2135 – Last of the Summer Wine, starring Michael Bates, Bill Owen and Peter Sallis.

2205 – Sportsnight. European championship soccer, England v Cyprus from Wembley Stadium, highlights and action analysis; Amateur Boxing Association Championship.

2315 – Midweek, introduced by Ludovic Kennedy.

2328 – Weatherman

I rest my case.

However, there was one exception which, 38 years on, still stands up as a first-rate piece of drama:

Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

Candy and Andy

candy and andy4

Steerforth lifts the lid on Gerry Anderson’s worst idea – an unintentionally grotesque show so awful that it traumatised a generation despite never even making it onto television…

In 1966, at the height of his powers, “supermarionation” creator Gerry Anderson came up with a bold concept for a new television series. He had already designed the puppets and with the recent success of Thunderbirds behind him, it looked certain that the new project would be given the green light.

But there was one problem: Anderson’s idea was utterly mad.

The new series was given a unanimous thumbs down by television executives, but undeterred, Anderson turned his idea into a publication franchise, spawning 154 issues of a comic and several books. The whole sorry episode lasted less than three years but it was long enough to screw-up a generation of under 5s.

Welcome to the world of Candy and Andy….

candy and andy1

Candy and Andy are just like any other children, except that they are plastic and live with two panda bears called Mr and Mrs Bearanda. They drive around in a Mini called Stripey.

The Candy and Andy books fail to explain the children’s relationship with the Bearandas. It is clearly not a genetic bond, so were Candy and her brother adopted? Is Andy even Candy’s brother? We are never told.

candy and andycar

With their panda parents, Candy and Andy live in a world of humans (and a talking hedgehog). It should be enchanting, but the reality is deeply disturbing.

candy and andy8

candy and andy5

In Candy and Andy’s world, you do talk to strangers. Oddly enough, these strangers are never alarmed by the presence of two sinister dolls.

candy and andy6

candy and andy2

The next picture is the stuff of nightmares, with Candy and Andy sitting on the lap of an evil-looking Father Christmas. This was the era before CRB checks, when perverts and sex offenders were able to find work as store Santas. This one looks as if he’s just been released from Parkhurst.

candy and andy3

I inherited a Candy and Andy book when I was three and forgot all about it until this year, when I started suffering from flashbacks. Perhaps it was my new job. If Proust was inspired to write a mammoth novel from the whiff of a few cakes, what hope did I have with thousands of books at my disposal?

There is another disturbing aspect to this story. I am a rationalist, but one day I saw a box of books and the words “Candy and Andy” came into my head. I started to unpack the contents and there, lying at the bottom, was the first Candy and Andy book I had seen since I was three. I now know the meaning of the phrase “sent a shiver down my spine”.

Candy and Andy has been conveniently airbrushed out of Gerry Anderson’s career history. There is no mention of them on Wikipedia and apart from one dedicated 1960s website, I can only find a few cursory references.

There are probably thousands of people in Britain who shudder at the sight of dolls without knowing why and find themselves suffering from recurring nightmares about talking pandas and psychedelic Minis. Like most traumas from early childhood, these memories are deeply repressed.

Perhaps it is time to form a support group for victims of Candy and Andy. We may have had our childhoods stolen by the weird, perverted fantasies of Gerry Anderson, but at least we can work together to end the nightmares.

NB – If you’re wondering what happened to Candy and Andy, I’m told that Candy made a few soft porn films in the 1970s, before marrying a millionaire property speculator. She now manages a chain of high class hotels. Andy never managed to cope with the transition from child star to adult and his last acting role was in 1987, at a pantomime in Swindon. He was arrested last year for stealing a Breville Sandwich Maker from a branch of John Lewis. He still lives with Mrs Bearanda.

Steerforth is a gentleman bookseller from East Sussex, who blogs at The Age of Uncertainty.

Food in the Sixties: The Enigma of Mr and Mrs Fanny Cradock


There was so much to admire about Fanny Cradock. And then it all went wrong…

I can’t quite make up my mind about Fanny Cradock. I’m on the fence about this one. There are many things to admire: the innovative cookery programmes, the slick, ball-gowned cookery demonstrations presented to packed audiences at the Albert Hall (ground-breaking stuff at the time), her grasp of the complexities of French gastronomy- oh she knew her stuff all right. Utterly professional, in those scary days of one-take television she could talk directly to the camera in a continuous stream without fluffing her lines, an extraordinary task for a cookery presenter. And she was one of the very first.

And then in the latter days it all went wrong. Very wrong. The world moved on, leaving Fanny behind. I’m watching an old YouTube clip as I type. Fanny lampooning dear old A J P Taylor on the Parkinson show; pancaked make-up, grimacing Dan Leno eyebrows, all the glamour and snobbery of caustic coffee mornings and gin-sodden bridge parties at The Club. Strange. Aggressive. An excruciating performance.

But that might be part of the fascination. In those days, the servant less middle classes aspired to sophisticated gluttony- to black tie dinner parties held in honour of The Boss, graced by the food of Escoffier, as re-packaged and regurgitated by the Cradocks in their numerous books. Today, aspiration is dead, unless you count the current vogue for both the manners and diet of the Mediterranean peasantry. Fanny would flounder in the brave new world of dancing Hairy Bikers and guitar strumming, long-haired River Cottagers. Or would she have done battle?


Johnnie strikes me as an enigma. He left his wife and four children to shack up with Fanny, and if The Independent is to be believed, apparently never saw them again. Fanny was the star, Johnnie the claret quaffing, henpecked stooge. Does he not seem like a minor character from a Dornford Yates thriller, or one of those blazer-wearing characters propping up the bar at the local Rotary Club? Murder in the Vicarage. An Old Harrovian and Major of Artillery- the Cradocks liked to remind you of this fact, often. Funny that. But then ‘bi-lingual’ Fanny was supposed to have been born in the Channel Islands, when, in truth, her birth was formally registered in West Ham.

There’s a blurry black and white photograph of the couple: Fanny’s in an early 70’s Liz Taylor trouser suit, (slightly plump, helmet hair); Johnnie’s sporting a monocle and a Conan Doyle tweed cape. Slightly shell-shocked. Unaware of his predicament. Planet Nine.

I’ve got some inside info. My mother once spent a day with the Cradocks. Back in 1967 my mother wrote to Bon Viveur declaring her ‘ever-lasting gratitude to The Daily Telegraph and Bon Viveur if they could teach her how to bake cakes’.  She won the competition, but was forced to make bread instead- which she knew how to do perfectly well as it was. The event took place at the Cradock’s Georgian dower house, near Watford. Johnnie – I quote- was a ‘sweet old boy’, but the silly sausage forgot to turn on the oven and Fanny gave it to him: all two barrels of her scorn. It makes you wonder if this was all part of the act. Or was this the reality behind their marriage? But then, they weren’t actually married, were they?

I turned to Time to Remember, a year in the life of- a monthly account of their Continental excursions. There’s a bizarre moment when Johnnie, at the wheel of  “the Duchess” (their Bentley Flying Spur) is attacked by a huge flock of enraged owls. It’s also a catalogue of outrageous name-dropping:

“We brooded over what to give to Somerset Maugham when he came   to luncheon…we unearth a dinner we gave for Mrs Douglas Fairbanks…a dish of very fine asparagus set Nubar Gulbenkian in a wilful humour, debating the perils of striving for a place in heaven….”

And in a later television interview, Fanny lets slip:

“Mr Heath has a very discriminating palate…”

Despite all this- or again, because of it, Britain has to be a better place for the Cradocks. Anyone who reveals the Mirabelle’s over-complicated recipe for a bog-standard Irish Stew has to be a good egg. In Fanny Cradock Invites you to a Wine and Cheese Party, the camera lingers on the Cradock’s West Highland Terrier, Mademoiselle Lolita Saltena, lolling by their front door. As Fanny herself said (of her dog): ‘Not quite a lady, but we adore her’.

Luke Honey blogs about food and culture at The Greasy Spoon Blog, and also on art and antiques over at his Luke Honey antiques site.



How Boston became Homeland: The Reality Show


News and internet coverage of the Boston bombings had all the ingredients of a TV thriller boxset. Rita is transfixed, but also disturbed…

24, Homeland, and now The Boston Bombing, TV shows that kept Americans on the edge of their seats with suspenseful plots, unexpected twists, false leads, explosions, car chases, mayhem, and death.  Critics have dismissed 24 and Homeland as “right-wing terrorism pornography” feeding the fears and prejudices stirred by 9/11.  Was it coincidental that the first episode of 24 aired in November 2001?  I confess to thoroughly enjoying both shows, justifying it to myself as no different from enjoying a good thriller or murder mystery book.  After all, it’s just pretend.  That is, until it isn’t.  Just as cheap-to-produce reality shows have taken over much of the TV schedule, so suddenly TV terrorism burst the bonds of fiction and became a reality show set in Boston.

It is easy to imagine the producers of The Boston Bombing ordering the scriptwriters: “We want this in real time, from incident to capture of the terrorists in five days max.  Viewers have a short attention span; if we don’t wrap it up quickly they’ll change the channel.”  The completed script had all the tropes of the fictional terrorism series: an iconic location (the Boston Marathon), false leads (the Saudi student), conflicting theories (it’s Al Qaeda! it’s domestic!), unexpected suspects (Chechens!), colorful minor characters (Uncle Ruslan, the hysterical, ranting mother), a shoot-out, an escaped suspect, a sudden capture (in a suburban backyard boat), and a cohort of sympathetic heroes and victims to provide hope and uplift amid the horror.  Perhaps the only thing that deviated from the template was the cool, calm professionalism of the FBI and police personnel.  No sweating, hyped up Jack Bauer going rogue; no beautiful, blond Carrie Mathison on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  No mole on the inside to sabotage the investigation.

The revelation of the Boston suspects had strange echoes of 24’s first season.  While viewers still traumatized by 9/11 expected Islamists to be behind the assassination plot, the scriptwriters pulled a more politically correct surprise on the audience.  The terrorists were from Kosovo, an obscure, war-torn European region little known to Americans.  We learned that Nina was the mole in the Counter Terrorist Unit when she picked up the phone at the end of one episode and spoke in Serbian.  The Boston bombers turned out to be from Chechnya, an obscure, war-torn European region little known to Americans.  The brothers spoke Chechen and Russian.  But the twist here played out a little differently.  At first the synchronized double bombing appeared to have all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation.  Then the photographs of the suspects were released.  The brother whose face could be seen most clearly looked Caucasian (he was from the Caucasus after all), so domestic terrorism became the leading theory, another Timothy McVeigh.  Then the final twist:  the Chechen brothers were Muslims so it was Islamic extremism after all.

Here the plot began to echo Homeland.  The fact that the elder Tsarnaev brother was described as becoming more religious in recent years provided his assumed motive and evidence of guilt.  In Homeland it was Nick Brody’s conversion to Islam that convinced the audience he was planning a terrorist attack.  At first the plot kept us guessing with conflicting clues.  Was Brody brainwashed during his captivity or was he what he outwardly seemed, an upstanding patriotic American?  The scene where he crept into his garage at night, lay out a hidden prayer mat, knelt and prayed in Arabic was the turning point tipping the audience to an assumption of guilt.

Just as I was glued to the television screen for each suspenseful episode of 24 and Homeland, so I was glued all day Friday April 19th from the moment the news alert popped up on my iPad announcing the death of one suspect in an overnight shootout.  This was just the morning after the photos of the suspects were released.  The plot was moving fast.  It was impossible to look away.  The surrealistic sight of a deserted city, law enforcement vehicles and personnel swarming like an invading army, the breathless, often wildly speculative and inaccurate reporting, the suspense over whether the younger Tsarnaev brother would be taken alive.  Then the frisson of a local angle.  The suspects’ uncle, it turned out, lived in my neighborhood in Maryland.  I heard a helicopter circling overhead; police or media I wondered?  Did the FBI think the younger brother had fled Boston to take refuge with his uncle?  My phone began to ring with friends and family checking in to ask if the neighborhood was in lockdown.  Calculating the hours it takes to drive from Boston to Maryland we decided there was nothing to worry about.  It was the media swarming the uncle’s house for information.  Uncle Ruslan delivered with a rousing speech denouncing his nephews and defending the honor of the Chechen community that became an endlessly repeated media sensation.

I confess I did examine my conscience, to use the Catholic phrase, for why this tragic, violent saga was so riveting.  Was it the same prurient curiosity that makes drivers slow down at the scene of an accident to take in the full extent of the carnage?  Was it that, like kids whose minds are twisted from spending too many hours playing violent video games, we can no longer distinguish the line between fantasy and reality?  It is OK to find tragic, violent fictional sagas riveting.  It is OK to say I enjoyed watching 24 and Homeland.  But what can I say about a day spent watching The Boston Bombing when the emotions it evoked were so similar?

In an interview a few days later the grief-stricken mother of the Tsarnaev brothers said she learned on the Internet that the blood at the bombing scene was really paint.  Of course she is desperate to cling to any crazy conspiracy theory that can keep her in a state of denial about her sons.  But those of us who watched the latest suspenseful TV terrorism show need to remember that this time the blood was indeed real.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

Easter Curiosities

Clay creatures by Shinichi Sawada at Wellcome Collection

Belated Happy Easter! Television highlights of my Easter weekend included Easter at King’s and Barabbas, starring Anthony Quinn (holder of a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). By far the best entertainment was provided by a friend’s 86 year old mother, who played the piano and sang like an angel after lunch on Easter Day. Over the weekend I also discovered that I could wedge a book against my iMac using the keyboard. This makes quite the perfect bookstand.

My (Oxford educated) husband enjoyed the Boat Race, which he deemed to be more like a procession than a race. I wonder if the requirement for ‘all roundedness’ in the race could be relaxed in favour of stricter rules relating to the age, weight and origin of the participants.  How about more British undergraduate rowers for starters?


One of the television commentators described the boats as looking like “giant eight-legged creatures.”  This reminded me that the Wellcome Collection currently has a collaboration with Pestival – “a cultural organization exploring our relationship with insects and the natural world.” A gastronomic insect feast and Insects Au Gratin workshops are on offer, alongside other entomological events.

My own encounters with insects have, thankfully, been rare. As a child, I recall being stung on the head by a bee whilst sitting on a bus – and finding an unusual bee fly, which I kept in a box (it was dead).

Later in life, on Peter Island in the British Virgin Islands, my bathroom was invaded by giant flying cockroaches every night for two weeks. At a St Lucian hotel, between the Pitons, a scorpion lay in wait under my wash bag. And I once saw some pretty nasty creatures emerging from a drain outside the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.

But these were nothing compared to the insect I happened upon in the business class lounge at Lusaka airport. I picked up my hand luggage and underneath was something large, black and nightmarish. It looked like a cross between a praying mantis beetle and a prehistoric monster. I’ve no idea what it was, but I hope I never see anything similar again.


If insects aren’t your thing, I can highly recommend the Wellcome Collection’s Souzu: Outsider Art from Japan (see photo above) – one of the most surprising and heart-warming exhibitions I have seen in a long while.

Susan Muncey is a trend forecaster, blogger and founder of online curiosity shop,

Ever Decreasing Circles, cricket and quiet English despair

Richard Briers died on Monday. By way of a tribute, here is a repeat of Jon Hotten’s post about an episode of Ever Decreasing Circles and its “quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair”, which features, naturally enough, a game of cricket…

You might remember Ever Decreasing Circles, a British – make that English, because it could only be English – sitcom of the early 1980s, the fading final years of a genre that quite often looked at notions of class and aspiration and then gently took the piss out of them.

Ever Decreasing Circles, like Terry and June, The Good Life, Brush Strokes, Keeping Up Appearances and several others, featured the nascent middle classes, dwellers in the cul-de-sacs of the 70s boom-burbs; commuters, middle managers, golf club members, with their dreams of conservatories and souffles and the company dinner-dance. These pretensions were easily speared, but not often as darkly as they were in Ever Decreasing Circles.

It’s contextual, of course: the show is a thing of its time, written by John Esmonde not Chris Morris, but there’s a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring. Richard Briers plays Martin, a pedantic, obsessive-compulsive valve salesman with a photocopier in his garage and moral code as inflexible as a periodic table. In 2012, he would reside somewhere on the autism spectrum; back then he was just funny, and not unrepresentative. Most people knew someone like him.

His neighbours were Howard and Hilda, a couple that seem weirder now than they ever did then, a middle-aged, guileless pair who wore matching jumpers and thought the same thoughts at the same time. In 2012 they would have been hounded to death by Jeremy Kyle kids or under the care of social services. The jeopardy came from Paul, a new arrival in the close who was handsome, urbane, funny, good at everything, and – most shockingly of all – the owner of a successful hair salon. Martin loathed Paul of course, not just for who he was, but for what he represented. There was a darker subtext, too. Martin’s wife obviously fancied Paul, to which Martin was oblivious (thus making any hint of betrayal all the more devastating).

Ennui, boredom, acceptance, resentment, disillusionment, loyalty – it was all there, just alluded to rather than highlighted. The other day I stumbled on an episode, in three parts, on Youtube (above, and continued below). It’s a about a cricket match. The set-up is classic; like all sitcoms, it telegraphs its ending while allowing it to be savoured. Martin is the team’s skipper. He has run the side for Continue reading

Review: Jonathan Meades – The Joy of Essex (BBC Four)

Meades the Joy of Essex

Jonathan Meades returns to our screens tonight with The Joy of Essex (BBC Four, 9pm). Our own Jonathon Green finds his old friend in typical acerbic, cliché-bashing form…

Jonathan Meades, who has guided us of late around the Baltic Fringe and through the less obvious aspects of France, has made his way home. Or at least back this side of the Channel. To Essex.

Essex, is there a county so deeply enshrined in contemptuous and yet simultaneously envious iconography?  Do we need enunciate the clichés? Slang noted the county’s role long since: Essex’s lion being merely a calf, it’s stile a ditch. This, maintains Mr Meades, is mere placeism: kneejerk condemnation based like all isms on the lazy regurgitation of spoonfed pap.

Meades, a man of solids, has no time for this. In its opening sequence The Joy of Essex runs down the clichés; bling, tanning parlours, McMansions, chirpy if exiled cockney cabbies and the rest. That the background to these is a travelogue of Essex glories: brick houses, mini-castles, swathes of fertile vegetation, dank  but  fascinating marshland, the sea…all makes it clear that this is not the Essex of TOWIE. Not a white high heel in sight. Writing in last Sunday’s Telegraph he noted that the Essex of popular fantasy, Essex Girl Essex, to paraphrase, is what the marketeers might term Essex TM. The Joy of Essex, I would suggest, is Essex JM.

Meades has been at this for a long time now and Meadesland has its landmarks. Those who take a trip there know what to expect and relish it. There is the usual acerbic wit: ‘accessibility means nothing more than being comprehensible to morons’, ‘democracy is all pretence, but it is the pretence that is important,’ an appreciation of the counter-language: a man who married well ‘got his cock in the till’ and the description, adapted from Tom Driberg’s biographer Francis Wheen, of the voracious fellator as the great ‘spermophage’; a far from genial contempt for such ‘prefects’ as politicians, planners and other layers down of laws for others, an admirable philosemitism. If one needs to seek an epitome of the refusal to suffer fools gladly, look no further. And if there is one difference that should jump out at every regular, it is sartorial. Abandoning his usual mix of subfusc and some un-named colour-code from Reservoir Dogs, Meades has a donned a polo-neck. It acknowledges, no doubt, the east winds that traverse the county under review.

Nor does the erstwhile restaurant critic eat or drink. No signature herrings, no cold running schnapps. The linking comedy is produced by the parodic delivery of cod-local radio newsflashes delivered in tones so authentic that they are surely professional. Much less of these, I fear, would have gone as far if not further.

If Essex TM offers the pleasures of conspicuous consumption and above all immediate gratification then Essex JM shows that the county’s older leitmotif seems to be that of gratification infinitely delayed. Essex appears to have been a magnet for utopianism. I come not, declared William Morris’ Time Traveller, from Heaven but from Essex. The tour d’horizon takes in a variety of schemes, often sidling into cranky cultdom. The original appears to have been the Salvation Army’s late 19th century land colonies, seeking, as Meades notes is ever the way, to reform those considered to be enjoying life too much, i.e. via smoke and drink, by depriving them of such pleasures and replacing them by hard and in every sense unrewarding labour.

The Sally Ann scheme worked, fields were tilled, cheap goods produced, and its graduates were smartly dispatched to new lives abroad. The cults that followed, the hey-nonny-no folkies and their kin, did not. Beards, sandals, exercise, that grimmest of all phrases: ‘joining in’. The joyless regimen of health and efficiency. There is an underlying sniff of Charlie Manson in all these utopian hempen homespuns and what Meades terms ‘transcendental bivouacs’. Cults  spinning out of control and potentially disastrous consequences. Purgings, fissiparousness, the fell diktat that if I am right then it is necessary that you be wrong and suffer accordingly. In the event none seem to have prospered.

This is Jonathan Meades and the social comes with the architectural. Usually in the same entity. The BATA shoe factory, a Czechoslovak creation that blended cheap manufacture designed to confer both social and economic benefit with a range of company designed buildings (houses, leisure centres, the factories themselves) that adhered to what was for Britain a revolutionary modernism. The firm moved on, the buildings remain. More modernism – crisp rectilinearity, Crittall windows (another Essex creation) , sleek, unblenmished  white paint – in Gidea Park and Frinton but Britain prefers its residences as mini-manors. As Meades points out,  there is something suspiciously ‘international,’ i.e. Jewish, about all these ‘foreign’ right angles and the wilful denial of furbelows. Meanwhile Essex hosted the ‘effortfully eccentric’ A.H. Macmurdo, sometimes credited as founder of art nouveau, but in truth not so. Meades, like a design-driven Tom Thumb, plucks out these architectural plums, though uninitiates will regret that he chooses to leave some of them unspecified.

What Mr Meades likes, as regulars will know, is the unfettered. The personal on parade and no place for high-minded condescension. He dealt with prefabs long since and Essex offers its share, folk art created by poor whites, home-built follies thrown together with ‘lashings of asbestos and corrugated iron’, as our narrator puts it with all the enthusiasm of Blyton’s  Famous Five sitting down to a scrumptious tea. This is the true workers’ playtime and there are no physical jerks in Meadesland’s utopias.

For Jonathan Meades the disappearance of this ‘people’s Essex’, the true ‘joy’ of the programme’s title, is to be mourned. The planners’ authoritarianism – utopia for themselves if not those upon whom they impose themselves – will ensure that. As for Essex TM the scum continues to rise. Perhaps Mr Meades, so particularly well equipped to excoriate such dross, will devote his next appearance to doing so.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

An American at Downton

Posh British soap Downton Abbey is a worldwide television phenomenon, but could the introduction of the ‘vulgar’ American character Martha kill the US’s love affair with the show…?

As dawn broke over Washington D.C. on Monday January 7th area residents were divided into two camps.  No, not Democrats and Republicans this time, not conservatives and liberals, but those who couldn’t stop talking about the last Redskins game on Sunday afternoon and those who couldn’t stop talking about the first episode of Downton Abbey (Season 3) on Sunday evening.  Washington’s football team, the beleaguered Redskins, who had shown signs of a revival of fortune, lost in the first game of the play-offs and are out for the rest of the season.  The heartbreaking circumstance was the injury of the star quarterback, a god-like young man known mysteriously as RGIII, believed by fans to possess magical powers.  As he limped from the field with a ruined knee, the controversy began over whether the coach could have saved him, and the game, by pulling him out at the first sign of injury and giving his substitute a chance.  The fact that I am so well informed about this should not be taken to indicate that I have any interest whatever in the sport.  But you cannot live in the Washington area and escape hearing far more than you ever wished to know about the ongoing drama of the Redskins.  It is a saga with as many heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs, scandals and sub-plots as any television series, though perhaps lacking in the costume department.

But on this morning I was firmly in the Downton Abbey camp.  The series is a bona fide television phenomenon in the United States, with this Sunday’s season premiere garnering 7.9 million viewers, one of the highest audiences ever for PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service).  Just why Americans are so fascinated by the lives of British aristocrats and their servants a century ago is open to interpretation, and there is no shortage of interpreters.  Nostalgia for monarchy, identification with a time of rapid social change, the irresistible draw of a soap opera in fancy dress?  Whatever the reason, Downton Abbey has become a national obsession.  Everywhere I went on Monday morning friends, family, and strangers were discussing Season 3’s first episode.  Yes Lady Mary’s wedding dress did dazzle and the Earl of Grantham facing his personal fiscal cliff resonated.  But what was most interesting about these conversations was that they all ended up focusing on the depiction of Martha Levinson, the Countess of Grantham’s American mother, played by Shirley MacLaine.  Her addition to the cast had been eagerly anticipated as a clash between two legendary acting divas.  Would MacLaine be able to match Maggie Smith quip for quip?  The expectation was no.  But few would have predicted that the American character would be played as such a stereotype that the “special relationship” heretofore enjoyed by British TV dramas and the American viewing public is endangered.

These are some of the comments about Martha Levinson I heard or received in emails:

“A complete stereotype of the ugly, rich American.”
“Her make-up was clownish. Americans as clowns.”
“Over the top, even more so than the British family.”
“She had some very telling comments but she wasn’t allowed to be funny.”
“The Dowager Countess was crisp and funny. Martha seemed annoying.”
“All her lines were trademark American lines for every situation.”
“She had bad manners.”
“A vulgar woman. Is that what they think of Americans?”

I must admit I felt much the same as these critics.  I thought her dress was flashy as compared to the restrained good taste of the Crawleys.  Like something Mrs. Patmore, the cook, would wear if she suddenly came into money and was trying too hard.  I was particularly appalled by her table manners.  She was shown hunched over her plate chowing down while the Crawleys feigned decorous disinterest and picked at their food.  Even the servants commented on her greedy eating.  But is there a grain of truth in this picture?  Americans really do eat more.  I remember being shocked when I was first served a steak dinner in an American home.  The piece of meat on my plate was bigger than the Sunday roast my mother cooked for our family of six!  Martha Levinson also exhibited the American habit of using her fork as a shovel, which does look crude to British eyes.  Americans, on the other hand, find British eating habits funny. I once saw an American friend reduced to fits of barely repressed laughter as he watched a woman in a London restaurant carefully slice her peas in half and balance the pieces precariously on the underside of her fork to convey them to her mouth.  An American using the shovel method would have eaten the lot before she had managed two or three.

But along with her flashy ways and bad manners Martha also embodied the positive side of the American character.  Impatient with tradition and formality, she swept through the stifled rooms of Downton Abbey like a burst of fresh air.  When the Crawley’s made a ridiculous fuss over whether everyone had the appropriate jackets to wear for dinner, Martha unstuffed their stuffed shirts with cheerful American pragmatism.  She turned a crisis over a broken stove into a jolly good time, which even seemed to bring a smile to the Dowager Countess’s usually disapproving features.  This side of Martha’s character was not mentioned as often by those I heard from on Monday.  Perhaps it is taken for granted by Americans.  But it resonated with me as an ex-pat.  On my first visit home after several years in America I remember being aware of a smothering atmosphere I can best sum up as: “We’ve always done it this way so we’ll keep on doing it this way forever.  You are what you were born to be until the end of time.”  I had tasted the heady American freedom to reinvent yourself over and over, to take or leave traditions or to create your own.  Once you breathe this air it is very hard to go back.

It remains to be seen whether Americans’ bruised egos will forgive the creators of Downton Abbey for the Martha stereotype.  Will they continue their love affair with the British aristocracy?  Will the Countess of Grantham’s saintliness in the face of financial ruin make up for her mother’s failure to save the day with her boatloads of American cash?  What did British viewers think of the American visitor I wonder?  Perhaps the Dabblers can weigh in on this matter of crucial importance for British-American relations.

I’ll let my daughter have the last word.  When she heard a complaint about the depiction of Martha she responded: “But that’s what the British do think of Americans.”  I have to wonder just where she got that impression.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.