27 August 2010

Dion Dublin: a tribute

From the archive: this is an article I published in the Capital Canaries fanzine in 2007, arguing that veteran England international Dion Dublin should be voted Norwich City's Player of the Season for the 2006-2007 season. The honour went to Darren Huckerby - but Dion won it in his second and final season, before inventing a musical instrument and becoming a TV pundit.

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When Nigel Worthington made what proved to be his final signing as Norwich City manager, the Canaries fans (or at least those who post on Internet messageboards) were virtually unanimous in their disapproval: certainly nobody envisaged a potential winner of the Barry Butler Memorial Trophy for Player of the Season. A relatively unsuccessful crop of signings in 2005-2006 eroded fans' faith in Worthington’s transfer ability, straining the relationships between board, manager, players and fans.

Having spent half the money received from Dean Ashton’s sale on Robert Earnshaw, Worthington’s hands were apparently tied over the summer, despite the sales of Robert Green and Leon McKenzie. He plugged the right-midfield gap by spending £600,000 on Lee Croft; limited to free agents outside the transfer window, Worthington opted to sign one player to provide cover for two problem areas in a desperately thin squad and recruited 37-year-old Dion Dublin.

Having seen other thirty-something strikers struggle in recent seasons, many fans were sceptical. However, Dublin came with a pedigree: after his release from Norwich in 1988, he made two FA Cup quarter-finals with Cambridge United, helping them secure successive promotions; they nearly made the top flight in his final season, and were relegated immediately after his departure to Manchester United.

A broken leg hampered Dion’s progress at United (he still won two Premiership medals and an FA Cup) before a move to Coventry City galvanised his career. Scoring 61 goals in 144 games and striking up effective partnerships with Peter Ndlovu and Darren Huckerby, Dublin finished as joint top Premiership scorer in 1997-98 and made his England debut that season, eventually winning four caps.

After moving to Aston Villa for £4.5m in November 1998, having missed out on the World Cup, Dublin played some of his best football, despite breaking his neck against Sheffield Wednesday in December 1999 – three vertebrae in his neck remain secured by a titanium plate. Returning to action in April 2000, Dublin helped Villa to the FA Cup Final, the highlight of his Villa Park career.

He joined Leicester in 2004, playing mostly in central defence, before winning the Scottish League and League Cup in a brief spell at Celtic in 2006. On 20 September 2006, Dublin’s move to Norwich was announced, and he made an inauspicious start to his Canaries career in a 3-1 defeat at Plymouth.

Fairly ineffectual (and seemingly unfit) during his first start in Worthington’s swansong against Burnley, Dublin’s transition to cult hero and potential Player of the Season began at QPR, when he sprang from the bench to turn an intelligent move into a fine equaliser.

His presence seemed to give the team a lift, and the attack a focal point besides Earnshaw: poor defending cost Martin Hunter’s team three points, something that Dublin could also help rectify. Used at the back for the 1-0 win over Sunderland, Dublin instantly formed a useful defensive partnership with young Jason Shackell, which held for another impressive victory, away at promotion-chasing West Bromwich Albion.

His second goal, whilst playing in defence, came against Sheffield Wednesday, and his third, as a striker proved the only goal in a home game against QPR. After the game, new manager Peter Grant said, “"He is a great player to have around the place, not just for what he does out there on the pitch, but also for the influence he has on his colleagues.”

In this comment lies the crux of why Dublin would be a worthy Player of the Season. Last season, the team seemed to lack leadership, with a talented team never approaching promotion; this year, Dublin has often been the difference between Norwich anxiously looking over their shoulders and languishing in the bottom three. His contributions against fellow strugglers QPR were vital, his equaliser at home to Leeds even more important.

Pickings from Norwich City’s Academy have been slim recently: at Southampton, Dublin was the Canaries’ only youth team graduate. Dublin has doubtless influenced Shackell’s increasingly assured centre-back displays, and his training ground presence may well have helped Chris Martin become the club’s most promising young forward since Craig Bellamy.

Dublin has not been an inspiration just to City’s young players, but also fans. At half-time against Stoke, a young lad kicked a stray ball back on to the pitch: Dublin headed the ball home and gave him a wave.

Since City’s Premiership adventure ended, this rapport has been missing, and few players have really appeared to enjoy their football. Dublin always plays with a smile, and quickly developed a strong relationship with his supporters – his hilarious wave to the Tamworth fans (not to mention his pivotal role in steering Grant’s team through a potentially embarrassing fixture) will live long in the Canaries’ fans memories.

Despite his age, Grant considered keeping Dublin on as a player, stating, "He sets a shining example to other players about what can be achieved if you work hard and look after yourself.” Few Norwich fans would now begrudge Dublin another season: since Martin’s emergence and Huckerby’s return to centre-forward, Dion has been relied upon less, his age meaning he must be used economically, but his presence in the squad provides experience and leadership, and a delightful enthusiasm that radiates from the pitch to the squads.

Darren Huckerby and Robert Earnshaw played more matches and scored more goals, but neither has transcended expectations to the astonishing extent that has Dion Dublin, and at the lowest ebbs of another difficult season for Norwich City, it has often been Dion who pulled the team off the floor. Given his contributions on and off the pitch, Dublin – amazingly – proved a wonderful final gift from Nigel Worthington and would be a worthy Player of the Season.

26 August 2010

A Transgender Journey: how it came about

Since the beginning of June 2010, I have been blogging my gender reassignment process for the Guardian website, in a series entitled by the Life & Style section as 'A Transgender Journey'.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the transitioning process (either male-to-female or female-to-male) has been documented in such a mainstream British publication. To the layperson, The Guardian would seem the most obvious host for such a blog, but the liberal-left newspaper has often had a fractious relationship with the transgender community.

I won't comment extensively on their works or opinions here - plenty of others have done so elsewhere - but in recent years The Guardian has published pieces by Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill, which echoed hotly-debated second-wave feminist positions on transsexual women and angered the trans community. (It should be pointed out that The Guardian allowed a platform for argument against these pieces, such as to CL Minou.)

It's only fair to assert that Julie Bindel retracted some of her 2004 statements in this excellent podcast with Christine Burns - which is well worth a listen. She has also proved herself perfectly willing to debate her views with the trans community in a number of contexts, and however much we (I) may disagree with her opinions at times, her preparedness to discuss them with the people concerned is to her credit and should be applauded.

One issue that trans critics on blogs and forums had with the appearance of such articles was that there were no transgendered writers appearing regularly in the paper or on the website, and it was a criticism with which I agreed. On a wider level, it bothered me that I often saw trans issues discussed in print and on film/television, but the articles were usually written by people with no lived experience of gender dysphoria, the films/TV shows usually directed by cisgender people who portrayed trans people as objects of pity or contempt.

Trans-sympathetic articles often tended to highlight the 'trapped in the wrong body' cliche - perhaps because they were one-off, short features that didn't have the scope to unpack the complexities of living through gender identity issues, for which this phrase has become a kind of journalistic shorthand. (This is not to deny that many trans people do feel trapped in the wrong bodies, by the way: just that the phrase has been so prevalent in media coverage of transsexuality that there's a discussion to be had about how much transsexual people have internalised it - that's another debate, though.)

So I felt that it was time that this was countered. Not at this point, though, did I think that it should be me that did this. In fact, the idea never really occured to me. I'd long wanted to write something about trans issues: originally, I wanted to write a fairly avant-garde collection of short stories covering different trans lives and issues, perhaps aimed at the Dalkey Archive Press. But I realised that there was plenty of underground/experimental literature and theory written from a trans perspective: what was absent, as it had been in my youth, was prominent, accessible exposition of transgender experience, told by trans people, in a highly visible context.

So my next plan was to write a television script - a trans equivalent to 'Queer As Folk' or 'The L Word' - something I'd still like to happen. I hadn't planned, though, to share my story in a purely autobiographical context.

*

I began transitioning in May 2009, having started to seriously explore my gender, privately and publicly, after graduating from the University of Manchester in 2003. One of my closest friends on the History course was Joe Stretch, the lead singer of the sublime synth band Performance, who I met in my final year, when I was involved with the independent Valentine Records label.

Throughout my pre-transition struggles to become a writer, Joe offered no end of critical readings of my work, as well as intelligent conversational support. As we only knew each other in the same city for about six months (January to June 2003, when I moved to Brighton), this mostly happened by phone (we'd meet once or twice a year on average). As well as signing to a major label, Joe became a published novelist with his debut 'Friction' in 2008, and did much to help me form some invaluable literary/journalistic relationships.

So, during a telephone conversation shortly after I started living as female in summer 2009, we started discussing my initial experiences: Joe, with the critical distance about this that I subjectively lacked, simply said, "You should pitch this as a blog to The Guardian - they'll bite your hand off."

So, through Chris Borg - a contact I made through my support for Norwich City and my work with The Justin Campaign - I approached Rachel Dixon, the acting editor of the Life & Style section. Chris told me that Rachel liked the idea of a blog documenting the transitioning process, and we exchanged emails.

*

Rachel emailed back, suggesting that we launch the blog with a series of other articles about trans issus by trans writers. She said that she would like the blog and accompanying articles to 'be a good resource for the transgender community, and to raise awareness' - at no point did she or I mention the Guardian's previous record on transgender. She asked me to suggest some suitable trans writers: amongst others, I put forward Stephen Whittle, Roz Kaveney and Bethany Black, all of whom have since contributed fascinating pieces to the website.

I've had no other involvement in the other trans pieces besides putting names forward. As for my blog entries, I've had complete freedom regarding subject matter and content. The main editorial direction I've been given concerned the second piece, which Rachel said could do with being less theoretical and more personal.

Originally I included some quite explicit theory about rifts within the LGBT community (particularly between the trans community and Stonewall) and was asked to make the piece less theoretical and more personal. Initially, this annoyed me, but the piece worked more better for it – I was challenged to find a way to show how the theoretical issues informed my thoughts and life choices – and I ended up with a much tighter, livelier piece.

Writing a highly personal set of articles is, politically speaking, the best thing I could have done: feminist/other opponents of transgender people have (as stated above) tended to reduce us to stereotypes and caricatures, ignoring our human experiences, knowing full well that this is the most effective way to make people hate us.

There are issues with this personal approach – the sad story of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels illustrates the pitfalls of publicly airing the intensely private very well – but nonetheless I consider it a genuinely important, if not radical act, which will hopefully have a long-term effect in changing the way we are represented by - and within - the media, and how people perceive us and our lives.

The Guardian has been the facilitator for this, and should be applauded for it - the trans community have noticed and do appreciate this, it seems. There is still some way to go, as this Gender Trust blog and this activist blog post point out - the Gender Trust criticism looks at the way trans issues are covered by non-trans writers, whilst the latter post asks important questions about what type of trans people are being represented - but both agree that we've made a very important start.

So hopefully in the future, we'll be able to look back on the blog as an important point in the relationship between trans people and Britain's mainstream media. If that is the case, then we should thank not just the trans people who articulate their stories and thoughts in these outlets, but the non-trans people who understood the need and made it possible for us to do so.

For now, we should thank Joe Stretch, Chris Borg and Rachel Dixon - they, and people like them, are the true guardians of equality.

Transitioning on the NHS: the economic 'argument'

Every fortnight, I get members of the knuckle-dragging community coming on my Guardian blog and saying "Why should the NHS pay for this? Stop stealing all my money and go back where you came from! It's political correctness gone mad, except they won't even let you say 'political correctness gone mad' any more! You couldn't make it up!" (I'm paraphrasing slightly, I admit.)

Most people living with gender dysphoria (follow the link: you might learn something, if that's not too terrifying a prospect) will tell you that by the time they decided to transition, it was because they couldn't face living without doing so. The comedian Bethany Black says in her show that the total cost to the state of her transition over her lifetime works out at about £27,000. If she'd killed herself, the inquest that must legally follow any suicide would have cost the state £32,000, so by transitioning she's saved the state £5,000. (Suicide, of course, may follow any amount of mental health treatment undertaken at public expense.)

By extension, a working human being in the UK pays £600,000 in tax over the course of a lifetime, according to The Sunday Times, so by continuing to live your life in the face of considerable prejudice and opposition, you've put nearly two thirds of a million pounds back into public funds.

Then there's the 'ethical' argument of "Why should I pay for someone's sexuality [sic]? It's political correctness (cut)' My counter to that is 'Why should I pay for people's sports or DIY injuries? Or the damage to people or property inflicted by drunken morons on any weekend in any town or city? Or unwinnable decade-long wars waged against distant nations full of brown people on questionable pretexts?'

Sex Reassignment Surgery costs the NHS £10,000 per person, and according to your beloved Daily Mail, and on average 140 people have the operation per year. Consequently, £1,400,000 of NHS money is spent per year on SRS (that calculation: 140 x £10,000).

There are around 26,000,000 taxpayers in the United Kingdom, according to Yahoo! Answers, so 1,400,000 divided by 26,000,000 means that you personally are paying £0.054 per year towards SRS (that's Sex Reassignment Surgery).

To put this into an understandable context: buy three less Black Jack or Fruit Salad chews per annum, and you've more than offset your loss. Incidentally, I'm happy to send this sum of money to you in order to offset it, as long as you pay for the postage.

So anyway, it's a fascinating argument and I really enjoy having it every fortnight. If you can't wait until the next time, numpties, here's a virtual present for you to pass the time! x

21 August 2010

The Struggle for the Real: The British Avant-Garde Film, 1930-1939

In film as in literature, the Thirties are remembered as a decade dominated by an essentially Realist orthodoxy. John Grierson and the documentary movement dominate histories of Thirties film just as W. H. Auden and his circle dominate studies of Thirties poetry. But the avant-garde circles of the decade, and the films they produced, were not as homogenous as history has often adjudged. Although the avant-garde filmmakers were politically broadly left wing, their ideological positions differed markedly, encompassing Communists, reformist Socialists and left-leaning liberals, and their aesthetic practices were no less diverse. It was a decade in which orthodoxy was defined, not one where it reigned.

During the 1970s and 1980s, after the London Film-Makers’ Co-op had established a tradition of stridently avant-garde film theory and practice in Britain, many film enthusiasts became concerned with re-evaluating pre-war film characterised as anti-mainstream or ‘experimental’. In one of the most important essays, Deke Dusinberre reflected the 1930s avant-garde was (like that of the 1920s) ‘really an attitude formulated by a series of film periodicals’ rather than an organised group with shared aesthetic and political principles.

In Britain, there has long been a tendency to equate epochs with decades, or centuries, but these epochs rarely tie in neatly with temporal divisions. ‘The Thirties’ as we have come to think of them – a decade dominated by opposition to Fascism in Germany and Spain, outcry over unemployment, and crisis on the Left caused by the rise of Stalinism and above all as an artistic ‘movement’ – cannot be said to have begun at any particular historical moment (although the Wall Street Crash heralded massive political changes across the West) but instead evolved over several years. It was the advent of Nazism that confirmed the shift in political (and, consequently, aesthetic) climate from that of the 1920s; in British film circles, this change of epoch was symbolised by the collapse of Close-Up magazine in March 1933.

There was a generational change in poetry – where the hermetic formalism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound was superseded by the social commentary of Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, and the restrained irrationalism of Dylan Thomas – and in film, where the Close-Up circle of Kenneth MacPherson, H.D. and Bryher relinquished their avant-garde centrality. The Close-Up writers were aware that their brand of intellectual criticism, infused with internationalist egalitarianism (manifested in their passion for German film) had been undermined by both the arrival of sound and by political developments. Bryher’s final editorial, entitled ‘What Will You Do in the War?’ demonstrated an acute awareness of the destructive nature of Nazism, informing its readers that ‘Tortures are freely employed, both mental and physical. Hundreds have died or been killed, thousands are in prison, and thousands more are in exile.’

Close-Up’s exclusive focus upon form was no longer sustainable. Neither was its opposition to Hollywood cinema, which had relaxed somewhat since the arrival of the ‘talkies’. Bryher warned that ‘close collaboration with the United States is needed if we are to preserve peace, and that constant sneers at … American slang will not help towards mutual understanding.’

It was obvious that Germany was now The Enemy – not just an enemy of art (and a far more violent enemy than Hollywood), but an enemy of life itself. The artists, theorists, writers and filmmakers so beloved by the British avant-garde of the 1920s were persecuted – a few committed suicide, but in most cases they were dispersed across the West. Given the shadow of Fascism across Europe and the catastrophic rise of unemployment at home, political ‘engagement’ became a near-necessity for Britain’s intellectuals, and the formalist explorations of the Twenties were often viewed unfavourably by the new generation of critics and directors.

The rise of this ‘new generation’ was symbolised by the appearance of new periodicals. While these journals often took a very different attitude to Close-Up, they shared its opposition to mainstream sound film. Dusinberre believed that the advent of sound ‘initially reinforced the pluralist attitude towards progressive counter-cinema … as it endorsed all practices aligned against the commercial talkie, an attitude maintained throughout the Thirties, with various diverse filmmakers united by this opposition. B. Vivian Braun launched Film Art in 1933, a quarterly committed to the ‘Advance Guard’, which distanced itself from Close-Up’s more sympathetic approach towards Hollywood, but still retained some affinity with the publication’s practices.

Braun, like Kenneth MacPherson, wanted his publication to anchor a film culture, and established the ‘Film Art Group’, which declared itself the ‘First Cinema Unit for the production of Specialist Films’ as well a ‘Cinema Art Course’ for would-be filmmakers. Braun’s first effort was Beyond This Open Road (1934), a silent film about British people leaving suburban homes and offices for a drive in the countryside. Other films by Braun appeared under the Film Art Group banner, as did Fairthorne and Salt’s abstract X + X = O (1936).

If Braun was spiritually closest to MacPherson, his ousting from Film Art after five issues by Irene Nicholson and John C. Moore says much about the change of atmosphere – Braun’s new journal, New Cinema, collapsed after a year. Braun did not share the disdain for the Film Society held by some more politically-minded filmmakers, who considered the Society a bourgeois enclave. Indeed, the Federation of Workers’ Film Societies was founded by Ivor Montagu, Oswell Blakeston, MacPherson and Communist politicians Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallagher in 1929 as a counterpoint, and Montagu was able to show revolutionary Soviet works on 16mm film, as that format was exempted from BBFC censorship.

However, the Federation was run along similar lines to the Film Society, and Britain’s creative artists did not make a definitive break with the artistic culture of the Twenties. Stylistic changes were inevitable, though, not just because of the changing domestic situation, but also because the vibrant German and Russian film cultures were decimated by their governments. In Britain, despite frustrations regarding censorship, the counter-cultural filmmakers found that they were not only able to operate with comparatively little interference, they were often patronised by governmental institutions, or by large businesses.

Perhaps this diffused the extremity of the filmmakers’ political radicalism. Britain lacked any school of Marxist thought along the lines of the Frankfurt School. Although some of the decade’s key practitioners were Marxists, particularly Norman McLaren (who studied at the Glasgow School of Art, when the city was a Communist hotbed), most were more moderate Socialists. None of the key Thirties avant-garde films contained direct calls for proletarian revolution, tending to avoid clearly discernable ideological positions.

Norman McLaren’s Hell Unltd. (1936), directed with Helen Biggar, was a notable exception. Along with the Kino group’s Bread (1934), it was the most impassioned critique of British economic and foreign policy, employing an appropriately low-budget aesthetic reminiscent The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927) to rail against the National Government’s policies of appeasement and non-intervention in the Spanish conflict.

The intensity of McLaren’s political critique was not, however, representative of the Thirties avant-garde as a whole. Importantly, the intelligentsia of the period were essentially literary (or cinematic): they were concerned with politics, but they were devoted above all to creativity. Consequently, the aesthetic debates of the Twenties were not terminated, but instead became intertwined with questions of Socialist expediency. The key debate throughout the decade concerned levels of ‘Realism’ within avant-garde work – what constituted ‘reality’, and the extent to which aesthetic experimentation could be reconciled with this focus upon the ‘real’. Whilst the Stalinist imposition of Socialist Realism in Russia was widely resented, the new generation of filmmakers believed that ignoring political issues would be irresponsible under the circumstances, and many favoured the documentary form.

Robert Flaherty, whose groundbreaking Nanook of the North (1922) remained widely respected, teamed up with John Grierson to create Industrial Britain (1933). Grierson had announced himself as a documentary maker of considerable promise with the silent Drifters (1929); Industrial Britain, with the addition of sound, was a 20-minute exploration of the craftsmanship involved in the manufacture of glass, steel and pottery, emphasising the individual endeavours of British labourers rather than aestheticising the modern steelworks or prizing the collective productivity of the urban working classes.

Industrial Britain was not a consciously avant-garde film in the Twenties tradition. Grierson and his circle disliked mainstream (particularly Hollywood) cinema and aimed to place themselves outside of it, but they were also opposed to T. S. Eliot, the Bloomsbury group and the Left Bank culture of the Twenties. Industrial Britain was a stirringly patriotic film, and many documentary makers focused on problems faced by British industries and workers, moving away from the ‘internationalist’ culture of the previous decade. Arthur Elton & Edgar Anstey’s Housing Problems (1935) anticipated the television documentaries of the Sixties in its sober description of the slum conditions in which many post-Depression Britons lived. The British Commercial Gas Association produced the film, one of several commercial or industrial organisations that funded documentaries.

Many of Grierson’s films, and those of his contemporaries, were produced by the GPO Film Unit, with the aim of mass exhibition and comprehension for their works. This desire was reflected in the character of Grierson’s own journal, Cinema Quarterly, established with Paul Rotha, Basil Wright and Anthony Asquith, among others, which attempted to demystify the process of making films, in the hope of encouraging working-class people to become involved. The GPO’s backing allowed the more ‘purist’ filmmakers to avoid the infrastructures of commercial cinema; given their Socialist inclinations, they were far happier to accept funding from nationalised industries, which perhaps made them feel more obliged to address domestic concerns.

However, the documentary makers did tackle foreign issues, particularly the Spanish Civil War, the defining intellectual ‘cause’ of the Thirties. Montagu made Defence of Madrid (1936) from stock footage of the conflict. They also explored foreign territories, especially those within the British Empire. Basil Wright, who produced Night Mail for the GPO in 1936, made Song of Ceylon (1934), a highly contemplative film about life in the Asian colony. The Thirties documentary makers tended not to aestheticise their subjects, presenting their films as ‘realistic’ accounts, usually employing quiet, accentless voice-overs and restrained cinematography. The art of their films was in their skilful juxtaposition of shots of ‘ordinary’ people and their surroundings – Song of Ceylon was particularly successful, with many intelligently-chosen images of Sri Lankan culture and commerce placed together, with poetry written by Robert Knox in 1680 complementing its images.

In many ways, Song of Ceylon epitomised the combination of social realism and poetics favoured by many Thirties filmmakers. Alberto Cavalcanti, the Paris-based Brazilian, was invited to make Coal Face (1935) by the GPO, which was scored by Benjamin Britten and narrated by Auden, who wrote verse especially for the film. However, the only prominent poet of the Thirties to actually direct films was Humphrey Jennings, a member of the British Surrealist group established in 1936 by artist Roland Penrose and poet David Gascoyne as a counterpoint to Auden’s orthodoxy. Jennings had been a committed Surrealist, passionately refuting Hugh Sykes Davies’ belief that British Surrealism extended a tradition that stretched back to Coleridge and Wordsworth, but his films (unlike his poetry) were anything but Surrealist. Spare Time (1939) was informed instead by the Mass Observation project set up by Tom Harrison in 1937 to record the habits and opinions of the British public. Distanced from the political critique of films about the difficulties of working-class life, Jennings’ film detailed, with charming simplicity, the leisure interests of the masses, and was narrated by poet Laurie Lee.

The official British Surrealist group did not produce any films itself, despite Gascoyne’s anxiety that ‘In England … there will be many to protest that surrealism is foreign to the national temperament, that it cannot grow here as it has no roots in English tradition – they used poetry, rather than film in their attempt to root Surrealism within British artistic culture. Roger Roughton, editor of the pro-Surrealist periodical Contemporary Poetry and Prose, had a bit part in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), but the other major Surrealist writers and painters failed to involve themselves in British cinema. Of Surrealism’s acolytes, only Jennings and Len Lye made films: Lye, like McLaren, won the backing of Grierson, who appreciated the value of uniting artists with different aesthetic principles under the GPO banner.

However, filmmakers who wanted to continue the Twenties discourse of painterly abstraction had to do so under commercial auspices, and it is interesting to note that all their films were used to promote a certain corporate image. Most successful was Lye’s astonishing Birth of a Robot (1935), a six-minute advertisement for Shell oil informed by both Surrealism and the work of Georges Méliès. Lye impressed Grierson with A Colour Box (1935), synchronising images drawn onto clear film with a pre-printed optical soundtrack, displaying a shrewd awareness of the potentialities of the material aspects of film. Grierson’s decision to embrace Lye’s work was emblematic of another attitude change in the mid-Thirties. Although the documentary advocated artistic ‘realism’, they did not oppose the rise of ‘irrational’ Surrealism or of abstract film, which drew on British Surrealism’s aesthetic style and engagement with Freudian ideas, and were keen to promote the work of both Lye and Jennings.

Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1936), Colour Flight (1937) and Trade Tattoo (1937) furthered his exploration into the possibilities of film printing and development techniques, being experiments in colour manipulation. Filmed in Gasparcolour, which involved the application of three light primary-dyed mixes (cyan, magenta and yellow), they too were advertisements for the Post Office, as was his N or NW (1938), a humorous study of a love affair nearly destroyed by a postal error before the GPO rectifies the mistake.

The most consciously Surrealist film of the period – in fact, the only work to display a genuine interest in the movement, termed ‘Super-realist’ by art critic Herbert Read – was McLaren’s Love on the Wing (1939), also commissioned by the GPO. Set against a backdrop that recalled the dreamscape paintings of Salvador Dalí, Love on the Wing promoted the novelty of airmail, with figurative images drawn onto the filmstrip, frame by frame. However, the censor found McLaren’s film to be ‘too Freudian’ – the Surrealists spent much of the Thirties trying to put Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to a revolutionary use – and briefly banned it.

By this point, however, the public and critical enthusiasm for ‘Super-realism’ generated by the Surrealist Exhibition at London’s Burlington Galleries in 1936 had faded. In 1938 Jennings (with Penrose and Julian Trevelyan) argued for Surrealism in a debate organised by the Artist’s International Association, against the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell, but the Surrealists’ beliefs and techniques were increasingly viewed as irresponsible as the international political situation worsened. British Surrealism did not perform the same function in film as it did in poetry, as a strong alternative to poetic realism – at best it formed a backdrop to several works produced by Lye and McLaren, most of which were explicitly non-Surrealist. The Surrealist films produced in France by Man Ray and Germaine Dulac did not prove influential upon the British group, hampered by continual changes in personnel and the collapse of Contemporary Poetry and Prose in 1937, and although the group continued to operate until 1947, it never recovered its initial energy.

If the point that the Thirties ‘began’ it is unclear, the point they ended is indisputable: 1 September 1939. For all that the Spanish defeat and the Nazi-Soviet Pact shocked Britain’s writers, artists and filmmakers, it was the outbreak of war – a war which the Prime Minister had assured the public would never happen less than a year previously – that necessitated fundamental changes in British film (and wider artistic) culture.

There were individual films that did not address socio-political concerns in the manner of Grierson’s unit – Lye’s, several of McLaren’s (such as Camera Makes Whoopee, a delightful stop-motion film), and Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin’s animation Joie de vivre (1934), all of which serve to contradict the image of the Thirties as a decade solely dominated by the works of Grierson’s circle of documentary filmmakers. This image owes much to the state sponsorship of Grierson’s films through the GPO, with a number of films made outside of the unit (particularly those of Braun’s ‘Film Art Group’) unseen for many years, and so neglected by historians of the period.

However, during the war, it would become even more difficult for filmmakers to produce works without state patronage, and for them to exhibit any works that did not win the approval of Churchill’s National Government. Nonetheless, Jennings, Lye, McLaren, and the more ‘realist’ directors, were still able to create a number of valuable films, which (in the case of Lye and McLaren) would link the pre-war avant-garde culture to that which emerged in the Sixties.

20 August 2010

Standards of Care: lyrics

In the (ongoing) absence of a website for our band, Standards of Care, here are some of my lyrics for our songs, which we hope to record soon.

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STORY

Terrace by the road
A life quietly charmed
She never tried to regain
Glories painfully past

Her child is from the new world
A suburban Renaissance
All hostilities fade
Austerity becomes light

Impact questions her faith
The world collapsed in a day
Some order may be rebuilt
The medics don’t dare to guess
Nye Bevan stands in her mind
This concrete future feels cold
Her husband drives without words
They hate the sight of the road

Harmonium out the back
He thinks he’s Henry VIII
The coma’s secrets revealed
Perception changed yet the same
Passion unites us in time
His music opens new space
I question nothing I see
We’re children one and the same

My childhood passed into the ethereal
To him the adult world was intangible
Comprehension rendered me cynical
Youth slowly became unrecognisable
On his death we remembered lost potential
In my eyes he remained magisterial
His spirit revived in our memorials
Strange how lives can be redeemed at a funeral

*

TRANSSEXUAL PANIC

Question one (thanks Calpernia)

Are you a man or a woman?

Don’t force me to identify within this antiquated binary. Actually, don’t ask another person this question. Ever.

Question two

Are you a ‘tranny’?

Seriously, fuck your slang.

Question three

What’s your ‘real’ name?

My name is Juliet. It’s as ‘real’ as yours. Consider the concept: “birth name”. Were you born with a name?

Question four

Are you on hormones?

The fetishisation of transgender bodies, condensed into intrusive questions about hormones, or operations. Consider your social circles. To whom would you ask something this intimate? Why ask a stranger?

Question five

Are you gay or straight?

Your ‘curiosity’ is no justification for these invasions of our privacy. Allow us to explain ourselves, in our own terms, on our own terms. Thank you. No more questions.

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THEY STILL EXIST

Flat land
Few plans
Small minds
Still life

Step off the train anywhere between London and Brighton. Reading the names of the towns on the ubiquitous screens, you are struck by their anonymity. Exactly halfway between, you pass the padlocked ticket office to the decaying streets. The council’s focus on flowers rather than footholds remains contentious, ever since the Paving Slab Controversy of 1996. You marvel at the tiny buildings, the high street a run-down parade of charity shops. The people prefer to consume elsewhere. Suburbia is for sleeping, not living.

Watch the people on Sunday, wandering around the shopping centre in the next town. A child stands transfixed by a ship, created by James Henry Pullen, the genius of the Royal Earlswood asylum. He cast himself as Robespierre, and his carer as Louis XVI. When the King entered, the guillotine was supposed to drop. It didn’t, but the monarch forgave him, giving him with an admiral’s uniform: humanity survived. The people glance at his Victorian madness and return to the shops, and the apartments that the Royal Earlswood became.

Flat land
Few plans
Small minds
Still life

Pub on Friday
Mail on Sunday
Work on Monday
Nothing to say

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THE ILLUSION OF PROGRESS

All passion spent in futile protest
Same old labour in new call centres
Middle managers are like Prime Ministers
They never listen, they never learn

Education, education
We studied for degrees in disillusion
Tuition fees guaranteed our servitude
You dropped Clause Four – then sold us all

Misplaced hope in British art and culture
Hollow works that masked a heartless future
Cool Britannia died in Yugoslavia
Peace rallies faded in perpetual war

Open-plan office, read broadsheet websites
Libertarians roll back your human rights
Car bomb deaths barely qualify as news
They’re just statistics – and so are you

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NOTHING MORE

I conceived myself as an avant-garde artwork
I didn’t want surgery: I wanted to be sculptured
But Surrealism faded into mundane realism
As the body never satisfied the mind

I dreamt of being Orlan, or a human Tatlin tower
Then I spoke for years to psychotherapists
Who momentarily convinced me of my madness
Then I realised: this was the response I had desired

There is an art to remaining intangible
Just make sure that you never make sense to yourself
Disregard any notion of a fixed personality
Explain yourself only through the most vibrant images

Use the body as a canvas for the mind

Nothing more
Nothing less

*

YOU'RE HUMAN LIKE THE REST OF THEM

Penguin Classic in your pocket, plotting adult masterpieces
Work that prompts no revolution is useless in your eyes
A thousand or a million people, still you stand apart
You know the world will yield to you in time

Overqualified in interviews, undernourished temp
You never prepared for the assault of the banal
Their superstructure soon subsumes you
Your insurrection checked

You’re human like the rest of them (human like the rest of them!)

Penguin Classics on your bookshelf, ambitions never met
Revolutionary work becomes useless in your eyes
A thousand or a million people, all the same as you
Unmarked failure: a human’s saddest crime