Saturday, August 30, 2014

Keeping Your Hair On When Scared Out Of Your Skin

Crox Minor missed the first episode of the new series of Dr Who last week, so she caught up with it online earlier today. Having done so, she dug around for reaction on social media, and came up with something surprising. The program received complaints from sufferers of a rare disorder called trichotillomania in which the sufferer feels compelled to pull out their own hair.

The trigger was a scene in which the Doctor (played by Peter Capaldi) plucks out one of his own hairs, and then one from the head of his assistant, Clara (Jenna Coleman), so he can test for the movement of air in a suspiciously still place in which they find themselves - a restaurant in which all the other diners aren't actually breathing, because they are psychotic cyborgs who use the restaurant as a trap for diners, whose body parts they can harvest (oops! Spoilers!)

Human skin lampshade
Now, I would not for one minute wish to belittle or demean or scoff at sufferers from any disorder whatsoever (I am a depressive with pretty bad psoriasis, fer Chrissakes), but it made me wonder at the degree to which people feel that they should be offended by media content.

Crox Minor wondered too - she referred in especial to a subsequent scene featuring the sudden appearance of a hot-air balloon whose envelope had been made from human skin. Had anyone complained about that?

After all, there is good evidence that Nazis used the skins of Jews they'd murdered to make lampshades. Indeed, I saw such a lampshade for myself in a small Holocaust memorial in East Jerusalem once, and when I saw it I wondered if it might have been a part of my grandmother. All of which reminds me of the joke about two cats playing tennis and one says to the other 'my Dad's in that racket.'

But I digress.

Not stopping at lampshades, the Nazis are thought to have used the skins of Jews to bind books, and make wallets. I am not sure they'd have stretched (stretched - geddit?) to hot-air balloons, but you can see where this is leading.

Were Crox Minor or I offended by this scene in Dr Who? No, of course we weren't.

Had we plans to rise, self-inflated with indignation, gird ourselves up with quill and umbrage (though perhaps not, in this instance, parchment) and write a letter of complaint to the BBC? No, of course we hadn't.

The appearance of the hot-air balloon made of human skin (lured into that restaurant by cyborgs, remember? Please do try to keep up at the back) did instil a small frisson of revulsion, but no more than Mr Moffat (the writer of that episode) presumably intended. The human-skin balloon came at a distinct beat in the program, and was the zenith and apotheosis of the cyborgian tendency to harvest organs from passers-by. If we picked up a reference to the Holocaust, so much the better to instil in us feelings of horror and disgust. But intended to offend? Absolutely not. The Doctor's use of a ready material - human hair - to pick up the (non-existent) breath of the cyborgs could have been a reference to the title of the episode - 'Deep Breath' - but was obviously not intended to provoke or demean or belittle sufferers from trichotillomania.

The BBC is believed to have taken a position of not responding to this particular complaint - and quite right. We already have warnings prior to broadcasts containing flashing lights (in case it sparks off epilepsy); naughty words (in case adults might be offended at the fruity language already used in the playgrounds frequented by their offspring); people not wearing clothes, or having sex (as if normal bodily functions are anything concerning which we should be ashamed.)

Are programs now to be prefaced with warnings that some scenes involve people plucking out strands of hair, or any other activity linked with a disorder, no matter how obscure, to which a viewer might have raised a concern, however legitimate? Let's not stop there - should scenes of banqueting be prefaced by warnings that they might be offensive to vegetarians? Hunting, that they might offend animal-rights activists? [That wraps it up for Anthony Trollope, then - Ed.]

The kiss (in the same episode) between Madame Vastra -- a lizard alien lady ninja person of the opposite sex -- and her human maid, also a female homogametic anthropoid member of Homo sapiens, has caused conniptions is some quarters of society, mainly because the osculation is between people of the same sex -- though the lack of complaints about bestiality from some quarters might also be telling. The same program also features (though, thankfully, off-camera) a cyborg gouging out the eyeballs of a passer-by. Should we beware of showing such material in case we risk a sudden wave of eyeball-gouging in the population at large?

The drear, dead hand of Political Correctness means that we must be careful not to create, promote or endorse any material which, however slightly, or even unintentionally, might be demeaning or belittling of women, minorities, disabled people and so on, for fear of our being harangued by the sanctimonious, the self-righteous, the arrogantly self-important and the humourless.

What the PC brigade in their puritanical zeal have lost is any sense of proportion, and worse - that their quest for diversity and inclusion might have the opposite effect. Yes, of course, we must do our best not to hurt the feelings of other human beings - such is only common humanity. But to repeatedly hit one over the head with it looks like fundamentalism.

Never mind the cross-species lesbian snogging, if we lived under Sharia law, for example, there'd be no Dr Who, and then the self-elected guardians of PC would have nothing to complain about.

Would they?

Friday, August 29, 2014

At The Comedians' Convention

There's a tradition at the Annual Comedians' Convention that any member can stand up after the Annual General Meeting and Dinner and tell a joke. It's more than a tradition, in fact - it's enshrined in the Convention's Articles of Incorporation (bear with me here, there's a point to all this, I promise.) Many comics only attend the AGM for the chance to tell a joke afterwards.

This means that Annual Dinners have been prolonged into the small hours of the morning as one comic after another parades to the microphone and tells a joke. Eventually the Committee decided that enough was enough - but what could they do? As the right to tell a joke after the Annual Dinner is enshrined in the Articles of Incorporation, getting it removed would be a constitutional matter involving endless amounts of committees, extraordinary general meetings and no end of tedious bureaucracy. Besides, any move to reduce or remove the after-dinner joke spot would be very unpopular with rank-and-file comics. The Committee was stuck.

That's when the Secretary had a brilliant idea. All comedians know all the jokes already - all the Secretary needed to do was write all the jokes down. His labours took more than a year, and the result came to be called the Official Book of Jokes. The key feature of the OBJ was that each joke had a unique number. For example, the joke

1: My dog's got no nose.
2: How does he smell?
1: Terrible!

… would be number 115, whereas the gag

I'm not saying my mother-in-law's fat, but when she steps on the scales it says 'no coach parties please'

… would be number 346, and so on and so forth in like fashion. Having compiled all the jokes, the Secretary sent a copy to each and every member of the Comedians' Convention. At the next AGM and Dinner, which happened to be in a plush banqueting suite in Harrogate, the post-prandial proceedings were shortened considerably, as each comic wouldn't tell the actual joke, but simply refer to it by its number. First up was a seasoned comic with his own series on BBC4. He stepped up to the stage with an insouciant swagger and said

"Ladies and Gentlemen - number 466!"

Titters from the audience. Up next was a middle-aged Geordie woman with an acerbic line in put-downs learned the hard way in pubs from Alnwick down to Middlesborough.

"Number 565," she said, to rapurous applause.

Next came a pale young man from London, fairly fresh to the hurly-burly of the northern Working Mens' Club circuit. He cleared his throat and with as much charm as he could muster, said

"My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen - number 97."

Dead silence.

You could have heard a pin drop in a pin factory in Pin City. The young comic wished the ground would swallow him up. In the history of corpsing, nobody had corpsed so quickly or so completely since the Black Death. He crept the 137,000 miles back to his chair and slunk into his seat. The comic sitting next to him - an old-fashioned Northern gagmeister who'd been wowing audiences for half a century, leaned over in an avuncular manner.

"Don't worry son," he said, "it's not t' joke, it's the way you tell it."

Ba-boom, and, moreover, tish.

Now, when I was telling this joke to Crox Minor over lunch today, her reaction was, to say the least, unexpected. "Considered as Set Theory," she said, "would that joke have been included in the Official Book of Jokes?"

I have taught her too well...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Engines Of Creation

One of the great things about blogging is that you can say nice things about your friends. It occurred to me the other day that I have several friends who are really rather good with their hands, crafting beautiful things from ordinary base matter, as it were. Things you might like to buy, for yourself, or as unique and special gifts, remembering that it must be less than 39,624 shopping days before Christmas.

So in no particular order, there's Maddie Bell, bike chick and unstoppable entrepreneur, who makes jewellery and sells it on eBay. Do visit her Facebook Page. I have bought earrings from Maddie in the past for Crox Minima and recommend her highly.

And then there is Paul Noon, until recently lead singer of my beat combo, Stealer, who is a true Renaissance Man. As well as being a keen fly fisher and ghost hunter, he makes the most extraordinary rustic mirrors, framed in slate. Visit his Facebook Page to see the gorgeous designs he has on offer. I liked them so much I bought two - one as a gift for a friend, another for our own downstairs loo.

Last but definitely by no means least is Clive Foden, otherwise known as the Green Carpenter, who turns and carves wood to create items of truly astonishing beauty. Bowls, musical instruments, furniture, clocks for time and tidespinning and weaving equipment and other carved ware (he made me a lovely Chthulhu-handled paperknife) and other stuff - there seems to be nothing this man cannot make. He's even invented the ultimate office relaxation toy - a desktop Zen garden.

So, get your orders in. But do it soon. These people are really, really good, and word is spreading.

In other news, I am starting to re-make the bookshelves for my home office. I am replacing the hastily thrown-up planks-on-metal-runners jobs I put up as a temporary solution four years ago (gasp) with properly fitted bookshelves, dowel-jointed together. I've nearly finished the first of what will be many bookshelf units. More news as it arrives.

Pin The Tail On The Jew, Just £2 A Go

The gaffe that led Spanish clothing company to produce a kid's top that looked like concentration-camp garb is not isolated. A few years back I saw this sign on a sideshow at Yarmouth Pleasure Beach.

I can't remember the nature of the sideshow so advertised. Pin the tail on the donkey, maybe? A carousel? A roller-coaster, perhaps? What occurred to me then, and sticks in my mind, is that it might just as well advertise a sideshow called 'Humiliate the Jew, and Win a Teddy Bear!'

Or maybe it was something like the 'Running of the Jew' festival in that well-known magic-lantern production Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Fiction? So you'd hope. But there are some Jew-burning traditions that still go on.

When I saw this sign I admit I winced inwardly, but did nothing. If I saw it now … well, maybe not. Just another example of Everyday Antisemitism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Maison Des Girrafes Caption Competition #113

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett says that because animals don't have language, they can't have opinions. He obviously hasn't met my dogs.

Captions invited.

Monday, August 25, 2014


I am Jewish. I like bacon, black pudding, seafood, bestial lesbian osculation in Dr Who, and Sossages. People in Britain who are easily offended by the presence of Jews, bacon, black pudding, seafood, bestial lesbian osculation in Dr Who, or Sossages (not to mention music, beer, sexual equality, the rule of law, democracy, freedom of religion, freedom to read and say what one likes, and happiness) should go and live in a country where such things are outlawed.

There are plenty of such countries to choose from, catering for every degree of intolerance, all of them variously totalitarian, narrow minded, backward and just plain nasty. In some of those countries they behead people for having the 'wrong' religion, mutilate girls to ensure sexual obedience, and then abduct and murder them if they want to have an education, but hey, whatever gets you through the night, eh?

Me? I have friends of all religions and none; of diverse sexual orientation and political values. I might not like everything my friends say or do, but my life is all the richer for their inclusion.

There is a reason why some countries, such as the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan (and, oh yes, Israel) in general have thriving industry, science, technology, peace, culture, prosperity and the rule of law, while the countries you'd obviously prefer languish in inequality, ignorance, violence, anarchy and primitive squalor.

Nobody is asking you to like bacon, or even eat bacon - just to understand that other people do enjoy bacon and that they have a right to do so, even if it doesn't feature on your own menu. 

This is ultimately why we will win and you will lose.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Major Milestone

Seventy-five years ago today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play my mother arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London as an unaccompanied child. She was three and a half years old.

She had been born at the Judische Krankenhaus (Jewish Hospital) in Berlin in 1936, and the sound of Stuka dive-bombers training over the city is among her earliest memories. Barely of kindergarten age she was one of the 10,000 or so mainly Jewish children evacuated from Germany by the Kindertransports - and one of the last. It was 23 August, 1939. Less than two weeks later, Britain declared war on Germany. The rest of her family - her parents and two even smaller siblings - didn't make it.

I pass through Liverpool Street Station regularly in the course of commuting between the Maison Des Girrafes and my job at the Submerged Log Company. The Kindertransports are remembered in this statue outside the station's main entrance.

I always imagine my mother as the small girl with the teddy bear. There is another, smaller statue in the main concourse near the entrance to the tube station ticket hall:

The footprints indicate the presence of another figure, now removed. I asked at the information desk recently why the statue had been removed. I was concerned, I explained to the helpful station staff person, because it meant a lot to me. She replied with barely concealed emotion that 'it means a lot to many of our customers' before assuring me that it had not been the victim of vandalism, and had just been taken away temporarily for renovation. I hope that's all it is, and that the statue will soon be replaced.

Some things, though, don't change. Berlin has once again been the scene of public displays of antisemitism, including chants of 'Jews to the Gas Chambers'. France, too, has seen a marked upswing in violence towards Jewish homes, shops and synagogues.

Demonstrations in London against Israel tend to be noisy if non-violent, though expressions of antisemitism here are also evident. There have been desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, swastikas daubed on headstones and other minor acts of vandalism. At a pro-Israel demo in Trafalgar Square I attended a few years ago, chants of 'kill the Jews' could be clearly heard from a counter-demonstration - giving the lie to the oft-expressed and mealy-mouthed sentiment that criticism of Israel isn't the same as antisemitism. It shouldn't be, but there are quite a few people, it seems, to whom this is a distinction without a difference. Why such people aren't immediately carted away for incitement to racial hatred beats me.

Someone once said that antisemitism is a beast that sleeps but lightly. My mother has made her home here. My father's family has lived here for several generations. I was born here and feel myself British to the core. At the moment, though, I do feel that I am being made to feel like I am alien in my own country. Shall we soon be seeking different places to hang our hats?

Or will our society wake up and smell the coffee?