Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A letter to America.

To whom it may concern.
To Hillary – We’re sorry that more than half of the forty years you’ve tirelessly spent in public service, have seen you endure a relentless attack on your appearance, character and, most troublingly, your capability. We’re sorry that you awoke today in a world that unequivocally values the Y chromosome over a lifetime of experience. 
To the media – We’re sorry that constant accusations of ‘rigging’ and ‘bias’ have caused you to default on your primary responsibility of holding the candidates to account for their policies and pronouncements. By willfully misinterpreting the need for impartiality, your dereliction of duty helped to establish a false equivalency that enabled voters to glibly dismiss both candidates as being ‘as bad as each other.’ 
To the Republican surrogates – We’re sorry that you were called upon to engage in months of endless, screaming misdirection and obfuscation, in place of calm, reasoned analysis of the candidates’ positions. Given that many of you are women and mothers yourselves, we’re also sorry you’ll one day have to explain your part in this nightmare to your children.
To the Democratic surrogates – We’re sorry that you spent the entire campaign waiting for your turn to speak, and when it arrived, found yourself having to make sense of an endless barrage of shrill misinformation.
To the ‘left-behind’ middle class – We’re sorry successive Republican candidates have repeatedly encouraged you to vote against your own best interests – destablising your communities, defunding essential programmes, and eating away at your standard of living – only to offer up a series of convenient scapegoats for the downward trajectory of your socio-economic status.
To the secret voters – We’re sorry you felt ashamed by your choices when asked by polling teams how you intended to vote. But if you were self-aware enough to keep your selection a secret, we suspect there was a tinge of embarrassment behind it.
To the third party voters – We’re sorry your need for bragging rights over your antipathy towards establishment candidates drove you to enable the greatest threat to freedom and democracy in the history of the Republic. 
To the Obamas – We’re sorry that your grace, intelligence, compassion and dedication to your country was effectively squandered overnight, and that your country’s reaction to eight years of exemplary leadership was to elect a candidate officially endorsed by the KKK. 
To the immigrants – We’re sorry that a country and culture that was founded, sustained and strengthened by generations of immigrations, has so quickly forgotten its melting-pot heritage and chosen to mischaracterise you as the enemy. 
To the Muslims and Jews – We’re sorry that the concept of ‘religious freedom’ works better in the Constitution that it does in practice, which is why it’s now being re-appropriated to only apply to one religion. And it isn’t yours. 
To the people of colour – We’re sorry that the worth of your lives has become open to debate, and that half the country felt emboldened to blame you for society’s ills, while the other half waited for you to show up and save the day.
To the LBBTQ+ community – We’re sorry your long-fought battle for equality in the eyes of the law may have all been for naught, as your hard-won victories could soon be overturned by a zealous and unsympathetic Vice President. In particular, we’re sorry that the transgendered community has been painted as a greater threat to women and girls in public bathrooms, than a newly-elected President who openly boasts of sexual assault. 
To women – We’re sorry that your dream of shattering that last glass ceiling has been put on hold for at least another election cycle. We’re sorry that Susan B. Anthony’s legacy has yet to be fully realised, and that it was women who helped carry a misogynistic candidate to his decisive victory. We're sorry that sexual assault has been legitimised, enabled and diminished by an indifferent electorate. And finally, we're sorry that your body will now be legislated against your will. 
To children – We’re sorry that you will grow up in a world where suspicion, bullying and intolerance are behaviours endorsed by the highest office in the land. We hope you’ll find alternative role models who will guide you in the right direction.
To Trump – We’re just sorry. So very, very sorry.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Let's not get blue, dear.

Whenever someone famous dies, there’s always a race to try and encapsulate their magic in a hastily-written eulogy. And in a year that has seen a virtual cull of the great and the good, there’s certainly been no shortage of ‘hot takes.’ So I find myself writing this tribute to Victoria Wood somewhat tentatively. After all, I’m sure countless writers have already posted their own impeccably crafted tributes to Lancashire’s finest comedian, singer-songwriter and One Cal spokeswoman. The flags will already be flying at half-mast in Manchesterford.

But it has to be done. The thing is, I’m convinced that there’s a whole generation of writers who feel that they owe Victoria Wood a debt of gratitude. Not just for the laughs, of which there were far too many to mention. But also, for instilling in us a love of words themselves. Rather than writing jokes, which would have felt too formulaic coming from such an astute observational comedian, Victoria Wood understood the idiosyncrasies of language. And she reveled in it.

Victoria Wood never had to rely on slapstick, wordplay or farce. Instead, she specialised in monologues and two-handers – impeccably capturing the absurdities and nuances of how ordinary people speak. Unsurprisingly, given her Northern upbringing, she also had an uncanny ear for regional dialects, which is why so much of her best material was reserved for Julie Walters, whose own prodigious talents deserve separate celebration.

Despite being an exceptional stand-up, Wood’s humility and unassuming nature often came through in her performances, which is why she was always content to give the showier lines (and parts) to other members of her fiercely loyal, but unofficial company of performers.

The characters who occupied Victoria’s world often had sharp tongues, but were rarely unkind. The closest she ever came to abject cruelty, was Walters’ character in the bittersweet TV movie Pat and Margaret, sniping: “I can’t be seen to have a blood relative and a Lancashire accent you could go trick-or-treating in.” Instead, like many of the Northern battle-axes depicted on Coronation Street, to which Victoria paid unforgettable tribute in one of her finest sketches, the humour often came from an unvarnished take on the eccentricities of modern life.

In one classic sketch, written for Julie Walters, a woman commented: “She’s trouble all round, with her bloomin’ sex changes. I never know whether to get her to wash up, or help push-start a Montego.” Even in the less-enlightened early nineties, Wood avoided making a transgendered woman the butt of the joke. Here, the humour comes from the despairing practicality of Walters’ character. In another classic moment, a woman reflects on her suspicions about her husband’s affair with a short neighbour, remarking angrily, “I wondered why he’d had that cat-flap widened.”

For many of my peers, Wood’s world of hairnets and pikelets, bilberry yoghurts and opinion polls, was easily dismissed as safe, middle-of-the-road. Mumsy, even. As my contemporaries sought out the edgier alternative comedy that proliferated in the late eighties, or the surrealism of acts like Vic and Bob, Victoria Wood’s knack for wringing laughs from words like architrave and vestibule remained unrivalled. At the heart of her writing was an understanding of the tension between aspiration and earthiness; pretension and pragmatism. She understood the women who’d discuss the evening news, only to fixate on the newsreaders’ outfits: “Three bangles and a polo neck, thank you.”  As an embodiment of Susan Sontag’s definitive explanation of ‘camp,’ her writing delighted in treating frivolous things seriously, and serious things frivolously.

Rarely swearing, and seldom conjuring anything spicier than a PG rating would allow for, Wood was able to mine countless belly laughs from a carefully curated lexicon of ridiculous-sounding words. Like the free gift with every purchase of Sacharel cosmetics, her language was “packed to the drawstring with handy-sized oddments.”

Her taste for the absurdism of the everyday often came to the fore in a series of impeccably performed mini-documentaries that pre-dated The Day Today and The Office by well over a decade. Despite being laugh-out-loud funny, they had an undercurrent of pathos, even tragedy at times, that showed where her sympathies lay. Her songs were equally empathetic. Yesterday, Twitter was awash with misquotes of the legendary Woman’s Weekly line from The Ballad of Barry and Freda, but there were other, lesser-known gems in her repertoire that carried far more weight. In particular, Crush captured the loneliness of unrequited teenage infatuation with just as much insight as Janis Ian’s At 17, albeit from a uniquely British perspective: “I saw you today, well, I just saw your blazer, and it went through my heart like the beam of a laser, and I thought that today, you would turn around and see me but you didn’t.”

I’ve seen comments that, before Victoria Wood, women were practically invisible in comedy. And no doubt, her success with As Seen On TV, inspired and enabled countless other female comedians. But Victoria was never a trail-blazer by intent – in fact it was her resolutely conventional perspective that allowed her appeal to transcend multiple generations, often at the same time.

But there was something else, something fundamental, about her influence. I realized yesterday, as I posted a hasty tribute on Facebook, just how many of my deepest friendships had, in some way, been cemented by a mutual, enduring love of her work. For a generation of gays, especially, here was a language that was all our own. “Hold your ponies, Pam,” and “Can I crash by, I’m a diabetic,” became a kind of post-liberation Polari. As our peers waffled on about football, or the latest band vying for a place on the cover of NME, we’d be laughing at the check-out girl’s dog blanket (”He were called Whiskey”), or asking if anyone had seen our friend, Kimberly. Without realizing it, Victoria Wood gave a generation of gays a voice; one that sounded an awful lot like Julie Walters doing a Brummie accent.

Victoria Wood didn’t focus on underdogs – she simply celebrated real people. Hers was a world stuffed full of Colins and Connies, Tunstalls and Mottersheds. And to anyone who grew up North of Watford, there was an unmistakable authenticity to it all. We could hear the origins of her humour in our own families. I remember, when my Grandma turned 92, a relative bought her a beautiful pashmina scarf. I commented how nice it was, and that she’d look lovely if she wore it whenever she went out. She simply pursed her lips, and said “I only ever go as far as the bins.” She wasn’t cracking a joke – that’s just how she spoke. And Victoria Wood understood that better than anyone.

These aren't tears in my eyes, I'm just choking on my own macaroon.