Monday 30 December 2013

Kirstie Allsopp and the Blitz Spirit

Earlier today, Kirstie Allsopp criticised those who had received compensation for losing electricity over Christmas and made reference to the lack of 'blitz spirit' during a twitter rant.

Now, mostly ignoring the immense amounts of privilege that her approach to this shows (she is, after all, the Honourable Kirstie Allsopp as well as being a TV presenter, being the daughter of a Lord) other than to point out that heating alone could be enough of a major issue for some older people without electricity to warrant it being an issue, the 'blitz spirit' point irritated me.

A lot of people romanticise or trivialise the blitz and the responses of those who survived it. It's almost as if their entire understanding of the blitz is confined to 'Keep Calm and Carry On' as if the pesky Germans were swatted off by pure British pluck.

When I look at the Blitz Spirit, what stands out to me is that it was such a painful and desperate time. That's what makes it amazing, but it's important to remember what it was.

I live in North London near Bounds Green. It's a nice area and I'm very fond of it. The tube station there dates back to 1932 and is particularly nice inside. It's a modernist style, as is much of the Piccadilly line - I'm a bit of a geek over this kind of thing and I find it absolutely gorgeous.

It was also, during the blitz, used as a shelter. Again, as much of the underground was. People would bed down there, cut off from the buildings above and, all things considered, fairly safe. And, at times, not knowing if they'd emerge the next morning to find the street they left above the way they left it.

This isn't unusual in that area. One of the things you begin to realise when you live in London is that you can spot where the bombs hit. They're often the parts in a street where the gorgeous, larger and older houses are suddenly interrupted by a run of 50s and 60s buildings that emerged out of necessity. The face of London was forever changed by the constant assault.

One of these assualts caused part of Bounds Green station to collapse while people were sheltering in it, killing seventeen people and injuring another twenty. Hiding in a dark station deep underground while the world collapses on top of you. I find it difficult to imagine a more terrifying thing.

And that's the thing about the blitz spirit. It occurred when Britain was getting the absolute shit kicked out of it and people didn't know if they would survive the night, let alone win the war. Many, many people died and the majority of the survivors lost people they knew. The blitz spirit came out of fear, grief and loss. It came about despite some people who took advantage of the confusion and damage in order to commit other crimes during the blitz as well - and I feel it's important that this is remembered as well. It wasn't mythical and it wasn't something that just naturally occurred. It was something deeply amazing that came out of the ultimate adversity.

This is why it offends and bothers me when someone invokes it in a way that trivialises it or reduces it to just meaning 'making the best of it' or even 'oh, we had to get the candles out'. It bothers me when people romanticise it and ignore the loss that occurred at the time. It annoys me when people miss the point and treat it as if it was some romanticised 'jolly'.

And why it really pisses me off when someone invokes it in order to make a meaningless, ill-thought-through point about people seeking compensation for losing power during winter.

My Most Embarrassing Moment - The Wide Awake Club

When I was a child, my parents enouraged me and my sister musically. We took piano lessons and we both joined the choir. For a few years, we did quite a lot with this choir, including singing in the Royal Albert Halls as part of the Junior Proms and touring Germany (where one young member of the choir goosestepped into a hotel restaurant and declared that we won the war for some reason). But our highlight was the day we sang Christmas carols on the Wide Awake Club Christmas Special.

The Wide Awake Club, ITV's early-morning children's show. Except it was 1990, so it was instead branded "WAC 90" for a while, with a bright font, because it was the 90s.

Yes. 1990. As 1990 as it gets, in fact. The year of taste.
The show was fronted by Tommy Boyd (who later funded an attempted revival of British Pro Wrestling), Timmy Mallett (who, don't forget, had a No 1 Hit Record with 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini) and Michaela Strachan (owner of my 10 year old heart, along with Sophie Aldred).

Timmy Mallett. This was deemed acceptable television for children in 1990. Somehow.

We were taken in a coach to Granada Studios, which was exciting in itself. We had to get up at 5am in order to get there in time, which was the first time I'd ever had to do that. The studios were enormous and it was by far and away the most exciting thing I'd ever been part of. We even had a dressing room, where we found a discarded Coronation Street Script, which was also the first proper script I'd ever seen. I was, of course, in my element.

When we got to the studio, there were a lot of wires and cameras around and it was hotter than I thought it would be. We met Tommy Boyd who was busy, but polite, and we met Michaela Strachan, who was every bit as lovely as I had imagined, but was clearly too busy to spend the rest of the day with me. But it was all amazing, and I was, obviously, destined to be discovered and would become a major star. This was my chance to show everyone just how great I was. And, of course, impress Michaela.

My 10 year old heart has never recovered.

We were performing towards the end of the show - also on the show was Damian, who had briefly somehow become famous doing a cover of The Time Warp. But he wasn't singing that. He was singing Wig Wam Bam (which I can still remember all the words to). And then there was some comedy with some characters badly doing christmas carols - and then, to show them how it was done properly, we were on!

We were going to sing 'Winter Wonderland', and much to my chagrin, I was not front and centre. We were in a horseshoe formation around the choir leader, and while I was on the front row, I was right on the end of the row. How was I going to get the attention I so naturally deserved? All was lost...except I'd spotted something out of the corner of my eye, which would allow me to take the spotlight a little bit more than any of my choir colleagues.

You see, I realised that if I looked to the right, I could see what the people at home were seeing, and which choir members were seen. So if I kept an eye on this, I would be able to make sure I was singing extra hard, and looking that bit more professional, with a big, charming smile. An offer to co-host the show was surely a formality.

So, in my head, all I was doing was watching the monitor, then when the camera came my way, I would smile and sing. An angel. Perfect for television.

Unfortunately, I didn't realise that what I was seeing was, in fact, the footage that was being recorded by only one of the cameras. The close-up one.

As a result, the footage shows a choir all paying attention and singing perfectly... with the exception of one (obviously not very bright) child on the far right of the front row, who was stood at a ninety-degree angle to the rest of the choir, blatantly neither singing nor paying attention.

I looked too stupid to realise which way to look, because I was too busy paying attention to the monitor for my big chance.

But, every time the camera came my way, I made sure to look the right way and sing and smile. I had, however, overestimated my ability to multi-task. Keeping an eye on what was going on at the same time as keeping an eye on where we were on the song was evidently too taxing for me.

And so, when the camera came for my closeups, which it occasionally did, it showed me suddenly looking the right way, smiling my little heart out.

And clearly singing the wrong words.

Fame did not come-a-calling that day. Instead, I had everyone that watched it wondering why I was having so much difficulty paying even the slightest bit of attention to what we were there to be doing. And I was too embarrassed to explain my mistake, so I just mumbled, which probably didn't help matters.

And Michaela never called either.

Monday 16 December 2013

Magic Falls Part 31

I stand on the stage, looking out at everyone. A few moments ago, I was glaring at Jack for putting me on the spot like this, let alone under the spotlight. But now I’m standing here, and I don’t have a clue what to say.

“I…” I look out, and the lights mean that I can only look at the first few rows (and I suddenly understand why comedians always concentrate on the front row – they can barely see anyone else).

The light glares at me, and it feels like I’m looking out over a chasm. I say nothing for what feels like forever before taking a deep breath. I talk into the microphone, and suddenly my fear is reduced.

“Jack said that I know what’s going on better than anyone. I don’t. That’s not true. We all know, deep down, what’s going on.”

I’ve said this once before. Given…not this speech, but I’ve talked about this before. In a different time.  A different place.

“Magic is falling.” I say. “This isn’t a conspiracy, this isn’t an attempt to control us. We’re used to the government saying things like ‘we’re all in this together’ when they want to make us think they are, but if there’s one thing that scares the government, that scares the authorities, the military, all of them, it’s the idea that we are actually all in the same boat.

“They don’t know what to do, because this isn’t rational. This isn’t part of the usual order, and it’s something that’s… well, I say it again. It’s magic.”

I take another look at the audience. They are listening, but it’s blatantly not like it was when Jack was talking.

“Magic and belief are linked, and they’re a powerful force. It’s something we’ve forgotten over the years, and the more we move towards a rational, secular and science-based belief, the less potent it is. Now, that’s okay. That’s not a bad thing. Except that when you take anything that’s got power and you remove it, it’ll fight to keep it. This is what we’re seeing. A move by various elements of belief to retain power.”

I’m losing them. I can feel it. I wish Jack had let me know he was going to do this.

“You’re called the Knights of Reason. That was Jack’s idea. The idea of an army of you, disseminating information that people want to know. Harnessing information, harnessing the power of facts and reason, and using it as a weapon to challenge against those that prefer to argue with lies.”

Horrible, horrible flattery, but it gets them back on my side for just long enough for me to make my point.

I can feel the sweat dripping down my face. I feel embarrassed and self-conscious, but most of all, I feel hot under these lights.

“The rationality that we understood has been breaking down in front of us for the last while. We’ve all been aware of it. But now, we have something as irrational, as difficult to accept as the ground itself moving in front of us, and delivering a sword in a stone. We need to make sure that we’re not ignoring this and actually accepting it.

“So, what does that mean? Accepting it. It means accepting that our logic has changed. That our rationality has changed. That our sense of reason has changed.”

I should have started with this. I’ve got them listening now, and some of them (maybe even enough of them) are taking note of what I’m saying. But I already know I lost some of them to start.

“We can do that. All of us.  We can take a look at the world and realise that it has changed. The previous way of life isn’t going to prepare us. We have to look into ourselves, into those things that we believe without knowing. Those things that we know without understanding. We have to take the tools that led us to understand how the world worked, and use them to understand how it works now.”

I glance over at Jack, who is nodding. I know why he did this. If he’d asked me first, I’d have put it off and waited and waited, like I’ve been doing ever since I came back. I’d have held off and waited for it all to be the right time. I needed a kickstart, and by making me go public, he’s done this.

“We have a sword in a stone in Trafalgar Square. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what that means. It means that someone is going to be able to pull it out, and that person is going to lead us into the battle.”

Time to finish, I think. Time to start moving.

“So we need to stop wasting time. We need to start this. The sword needs to be pulled and we need to work out what that means for all of us. But if our government, our security forces, have decided that we can’t do this, then they’re in our way. But we don’t need to fight them. We can’t be divided on this for too long.”

They’re actually listening. It’s not anything to do with any kind of ability with words of mine. It’s because they already believe this. They just needed someone to articulate it.

“Make them listen. Thank you.”

And then I’m off the stage. The applause is there, but it’s far from rapturous – I really wish he’d given me more time to prepare. But it’s done, at least. Jack grins at me.

“Sorry, but – look, can we talk in a bit? Get a drink, talk to people. I’m going to call a break anyway.”

“Go, go.” I say, gesturing to the stage. “We’ll talk in a bit. And I’ll kill you for setting me up like that.”

I then go back to my seat, feeling more energised due to the adrenaline involved in talking to that many people, but it’s not until the break is under way and people are mingling and talking while I’m looking for Jack that it happens.

I feel it before I see it. And even then, it takes me long moments to comprehend what’s happening.

I’m distracted, stupidly, by the fact that one of their faces is familiar, but in a way that doesn’t make sense. 

Do I know him from TV or something? He’s nodding to one of his colleagues, confirmimg that I’m the one.

Then I feel the cuffs snapping around my wrists.

I look around, wildly, and then I see Jack.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “He says this needs to happen.”

The crowd is in shock. This is all happening so publicly.

“You’re under arrest,” says the man snapping the cuffs on me.