I don’t know about you but I’ve got a real soft spot for Silent Witness, the forensics procedural that is now entering its 23rd series. It’s rare for a crime drama to straddle that middle ground between hard-hitting and gritty on the one hand and flabby and unconvincing on the other but SW seems to manage it. It’s quite corny in parts and there’s a lot of telling-people-things-they-ought-to-know-already (for example, last night a HEMS officer asked what diazepam is) but I just blow past it because I enjoy the programme: in fact OH and I have been following it for years.
So what is it about this series that is so appealing? Well, first off is the subject matter. There are a lot of crime and police procedurals but very few forensic ones, and the concept of probing the secrets of the dead is very appealing. Of course as it’s not a gritty drama the corpses aren’t depicted with anything approaching realism but again, we just blow past that because it’s so enjoyable. Like police procedurals the pleasure is in trying to work out the denouement before the characters get there, and the series allows the attentive viewer to twig the outcome just before Nikki and her team.
And that’s the third attraction of this show; the characters. These people are family; there are mother and father-figures (Nikki and Thomas) and squabbling siblings Jack and Clarissa. There’s no hint of sexual attraction between them – any relationships take place outside the team – and while there are tiffs and disagreements, nothing major threatens the coherence of the group.
So much for silent witnesses; less entertaining is what I call the phenomenon of the silent ‘g’.Every time I turn on Steve Wright ‘in the afternoon’ – that’ll be on his gravestone – he seems to be doing a feature called ‘serious jockin’ (no g’). I simply cannot understand the point of this. People text or email saying what they’re up to and add ‘serious’ whatever with no ‘g’ at the end. A typical one might go like this: ‘and here’s Jordan in Scarborough: Dear Steve, we’re heading up to the Lake District this weekend for some sailing. Serious boatin’ – no g.’ Why is this funny? Why do they make such a big deal out of it? OH cannot understand it and neither can I.
It also puts me in mind of the National Theatre of Brent, whose comedy seems to consist in droppin’ the g’s at the end of words.
This morning I was, against my better judgment, listening to ‘In Our Time.’ It’s not that I dislike the adenoidal tones of Melvyn Bragg – I used to enjoy watching him on t’telly – it’s the programme itself. Somehow they always seem to take an interesting subject and turn it into something dull and ponderous. And I particularly dislike the ubiquity of the historic present (‘Napoleon sees his opportunity and grasps it’, ‘Henry desperately wants a son’) as if this can substitute for interesting narration. But this morning I was grabbed by the subject because they were talking about a theory of child-centred education.
Oo, I thought, I wonder who they’re talking about? It could have been John Stuart Mill or John Holt but it turned out to be Rousseau and my heart sank because, must as I admire his ideas on education they are very definitely For Boys Only. Surprise, surprise, girls must have a completely different system because well, we’re just not that bright, are we? And you know how emotional women get – we just wouldn’t cope (see this explanation.)
But it gets worse – for it transpired (and this I didn’t know) that in doing this ‘great’ work, Rousseau completely abandoned – yes, abandoned – his wife and their five children. I was outraged to hear this, and it reminded me of Enid Blyton and how she neglected her own children in order to write for other people’s. Her elder daughter commented on how confusing it was to read her mother’s descriptions of reading them bedtime stories – all completely fabricated as no such thing ever happened.
Should I be surprised? Is it a general – nay, invariable rule that people who bang on about something don’t actually practise it themselves? Can you think of other examples? Or perhaps counter-examples? Well, I have one – no, hang on- two. I was reading this morning about how St Francis not only preached against the Crusades but went to the Middle East to show friendship and solidarity with Muslims there. When Christians deviated from the gospel he was always ready, not only to point this out but actually to do something about it. As for Gandhi, the ways in which he married practice and preaching are well-known – and as a Quaker I ought to know that Friends aim to put everything we believe into practice.
So what is going on with these others, Rousseau and Blyton et al? Dickens was another case in point; a campaigner for children’s rights who neglected his own family. So is there some kind of philosophical point we can extract from this? And if so, what is it?
I’ve been thinking about the Archers lately. I went off it for a while during its ‘Eastenders’ phase and then went back. I’m still listening, but I can’t help feeling it’s an uphill struggle; there are too many characters, a proliferation of plots and I can’t keep track of them all.
Not only that, but there’s little diversity. Yes, I know it’s a village but in all the time I’ve been listening there’s only been one Asian character (Usha is hardly ever heard nowadays and might even be out of the series, it’s hard to tell) and no black characters at all. There is a gay couple and I’d like to know what’s happening with them and Lexi; I’d also like to know what’s going on with Helen and Lee, Brian and Jenny, Neil and – much as I dislike him, Justin – but like a merry-go-round with too many cars, you only see them once in a while.I lose track.
I’m not harking back to the days when the Archers was cosy: in fact those days never really existed. There were always murders, drugs, affairs, illegitimate pregnancies… many who are now pillars of the establishment (eg Elizabeth) were quite wild in their youth. What I miss is knowing the characters. I feel like a teacher with far too many pupils: I can’t get to know them all because I don’t see them for long enough. And don’t get me started on how many voices sound similar…virtually the only new character I recognise is Leonard, because he’s the one with the Yorkshire accent.
I miss Nelson and Jethro; I miss Walter and his elephants and the silly stories they used to have. I miss Bert Fry. Apparently still alive but how would we know?
It just doesn’t feel like it used to – but then nothing does. I expect I’m just getting old.
Reading this post from the other day put me in mind of Mornington Crescent, one of the silly games people play on ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.’ I like ‘Clue’, as it’s generally known, as well as the next person, but lately it’s been somewhat spoiled for me by the utter mania of the audience. Where do they find these people, and what are they on? How can they summon up such whooping enthusiasm for Hamish and Dougal having had their tea yet again??? How can one song to the tune of another bring on such incontinent ecstasy? I enjoy these games too and I like Jack Dee’s deadpan put-downs as much as the next person, but the manic audience strips the programme of all subtlety.
I digress. My favourite game in this welter of silliness isMornington Crescent, a test of ingenuity and knowledge of the London Underground where the goal is to reach Mornington Crescent station before the other players. It sounds complex and intricate: in fact it’s a hoax; there are no rules and the fun is to make it sound as though there are by seeming to think very hard about your next move and by bringing in certain technical-sounding phrases (‘ah, I see you’re using the Kings’ Cross switchback there,’ and so on.) But, as OH has so shrewdly pointed out, there are in fact meta-rules because the game wouldn’t work if the first player simply said ‘Mornington Crescent’ straight away. You have to leave it long enough to be plausible, yet not too long as to become boring; plus you have to bring in unusual stations which seem to be connected to ones already mentioned. And it has to be funny.
Are the British alone in finding our place names amusing? Americans don’t seem to do this at all; they pronounce the most bizarre of names with nary a smirk, but we Brits chortle at the mere mention of Bognor or Chipping Sodbury. Douglas Adams took this tendency and went global with his Meaning of Liff, taking place names around the world and inventing definitions to go with them: our favourites are Grimbister, a group of cars all travelling at the same speed because one of them is a police car, and Berepper, a subtle but audible fart. And it seems to me that a similar amusement is at work in MC because there are certain combinations of names which are inherently funnier than others. Like Mordern, say, or East Cheam or – well, Mornington Crescent.
Yay! I win!
Clue must be due back on air for its 731st series soon… and in case you can’t find it, Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black one) just North of Euston.
So apparently you all think there is such a thing as a left-handed version of ‘A Suitable Boy’. Eh? Is that what you all think? Really? Because no-one commented on my April Fool the other day. No-one! Not one single person, not even when I dropped a hint yesterday. Could it be that you just don’t read my blog posts carefully enough? Hmm? Well, what have you got to say for yourselves? Eh?
Or could it be that I was just too good at smuggling it in there? Was it just too understated and unobtrusive? There’s the rub; because you don’t want to make it obvious but then again if it’s worked too seamlessly into the text, nobody notices.
Well you can consider yourselves all in detention…
It makes me think of ‘The Unbelievable Truth‘; the radio 4 programme based on unbelievable facts and barely-credible lies where contestants try to smuggle truths into a lecture consisting otherwise of falsehoods. This is harder than it sounds. Not only do you have to make lies sound like truths; you have also to make truths sound like lies. But there’s more to it than that; inexperienced players tend to fall into the ‘rule of three’ trap where they will tell two falsehoods followed by a truth because there’s something in that rhythm that comes naturally. And there’s the rub: in playing the game you have to go against your own nature, because in the end it’s much harder for most of us to tell a lie than it is to tell a truth, and we all tend to signal in some way when we do lie.
The police know this, at least in crime fiction they do and I don’t see why they wouldn’t in real life (though I never cease to be amazed by what professionals in all fields do and don’t know). They know that we signal when we lie; that unless we are practised liars, so practised that lies are woven seamlessly into the fabric of our conversation, we will give out clues. The direction of the eyes, for example, which indicates which part of the brain we are accessing (whether memory or invention) or blinking at just the wrong moment, or fidgeting; or betraying discomfort in a million different ways. It’s very hard to lie in a sustained and convincing way, so while you might get away with a quick ‘It wasn’t me, Miss, it was him!’ you’re unlikely to sustain this under detailed and prolonged questioning. Which brings us back to detention. Now: wait a moment while I shine this uncomfortably bright light in your eyes and tell me: did you really read my blog post properly the other day? Do you really think there’s such a thing as a left-handed copy of a book?
Go on, go home now. And make sure you read properly in future because I’ll be asking questions.
I’ve been doing a bit of the old self-help lately, dipping in to Paul McKenna’s books and using his hypnosis CD, and I’ve found the exercises very useful. I’ve long been convinced by the power of visualisation to change your reality (I’ll give you some examples in a minute) but these exercises go further, using the techniques of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to help neutralise negative thoughts and emotions. I’m not exactly clear what NLP is but according to this site it’s about finding a better way to communicate with your subconscious in order to get what you want. Sounds good to me.
This entirely accords with the practice of yoga visualisation and affirmation. In yoga you change your thoughts by cultivating more positive ones; not by suppressing or denying the negative but simply by focussing more and more on the positive. As McKenna says, ‘You always get more of what you focus on.’ That is why people who focus on the negative all the time are never happy: even when good things happen they are still focussing on the down-side (much like the news media.) In yoga we also use affirmations to cultivate positive thoughts and experiences. It is very important when creating an affirmation, to avoid negative words. So for example, instead of saying ‘I don’t smoke’ or even ‘I am a non-smoker’ you would substitute ‘I am free from smoking.’ Come to think of it, advertisers do the same thing: whoever came up with the suffix –free must be rolling in it.
So: one or two examples from my own life where visualisations have helped me. Before Christmas I was thinking of getting OH a radio. OH is notoriously difficult to buy presents for: unless you go for something related to drinking coffee (and those options were exhausted long ago) you’re pretty much stumped. Last year I got what I thought was an interesting couple of books which have languished unread on the bedside table. But this year a radio was the clear choice: the one in the kitchen, being smothered in cooking oil and penetrated by steam, had ceased to provide anything like a clear signal and besides, I had seen the perfect thing in an electronics shop up the road: a great radio with the added righteous glow of supporting a local shop. Just one problem: the radio cost £80 and I only had £30.
Not to worry: McKenna to the rescue! For I had acquired his book by this time and was already practising the NLP exercises, so I set about visualising the radio. There were times when doubts would kick in and I would think about getting a cheaper one, but I had my heart set on that radio and so I oriented all my thoughts towards it too. Christmas was getting closer, but I wouldn’t give up. Then, with only three days to go, we got some Christmas money in lieu of presents. Was it enough for the radio? Hell, yes! Did I bomb down to the shop and get it? Hell yes. And is it a success? It really is.
Of course the other side to all this is appreciating what you have when you have it, but I’ve already blogged about that here.
I can’t tell you what my current visualisations are aimed at but it’s big. Really big. Because as Thoreau says, you should build your castles in the air where they belong; then you build the foundations under them.
I know this is not a phrase you hear from many writers but I love deadlines – and not merely for the whooshing noise they make which so entertained Douglas Adams. I love deadlines because they focus me. If I have years and years to complete a project I do not, as some sensible folk do, plan it out, break down the work into chunks and do a certain amount per month. I suspect that isn’t how most writers work either; to judge by the jokes on the subject, a two-year project would consist of eighteen months procrastination, five months fiddling and one month pure panic. I, on the other hand, need an incentive to get me going and a deadline provides that incentive. If the end of a project is two years away I’m likely to get bored, but give me a deadline in two months and I’m on it, even if I have no chance of getting finished within that time. It’s a little like the crisis inducer in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxywhich brings on a crisis to sharpen your wits when needed. So what I need is basically a Deadline Inducer to bring on a deadline and sharpen my desire to work: some button I can press which makes a voice in my head say, ‘the deadline’s next Monday! This has to be in by next Monday! You need to complete this by the 4th!’ and so on. Come to think of it, Douglas Adams should have had one of those…
Having said that, the deadline for the radio play has whooshed by without my play being submitted as it became increasingly obvious that the thing was mushrooming and could not be wrestled into shape any time soon. On the other hand I have sent one short story, three pieces of flash fiction and three poems to various magazines well within their respective deadlines. So brownie points to me.