Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: Fanny Hill vs 50 Shades

Last week I went to see Bristol Old Vic's new production of Fanny Hill. This is a theatre version of John Cleland's 1748 erotic novel, banned until the 1960s. I have read the book and much of it you couldn't put on stage, on film or screen, which is why adaptations are often a bit limp. Anyway, I couldn't help wondering how it stood up against this week's other sex blockbuster, 50 Shades of Grey. So I went to see 50 Shades. Readers, the things I do for your pleasure. For a start, that's £8 I'll never get back. The Old Vic, on the other hand, gave me one for free, the sluts. Look, I don't want to end up in some kind of compromising situation, this isn't the the Telegraph, you know. Anyway, in the interests of full disclosure I should point out that I insanely adore Fanny Hill the novel. I dumped 50 Shades, the novel, at page 173. That done, let's get started:

Fanny Hill (the play) adapted from the funny, literary pornographic novel, which follows the trials tribulations and ah, other activities of Fanny as she goes from hapless rural orphan to brothel jail-bait, through true love, whoredom, and a good many scenarios besides.
50 Shades (the film) adapted from the unfunny, unliterary pornographic novel, which follows the trials tribulations and ah, other activities of Anastasia Steele as she goes from hapless literature student to being the mistress of controlling, BDSM-obsessed tycoon Christian Grey.

Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 Sometimes TV actors are rubbish on stage, but Caroline Quentin looked very much at home. All the supporting cast, especially Gwyneth Keyworth, were excellent.
50 Shades (the film) 3/5 I feel sorry for Jamie Dornan. If he were to beat anyone with a whip, I think should probably be his agent. This is such an awful, implausible character to portray, the fact that he did it without visibly looking like he wanted to die is credit to his acting commitment.

Likeability of central character
Fanny Hill (the play) 4/5 Funny, rude, lewd, assertive and businesslike: but this version of Fanny Hill, as an older woman attempting to recount her youth as a whore, is a static creation, and less engaging than the one in the book, who changes as the narrative progresses.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Despite the best efforts of the actress who plays her, Anastasia is a clueless, personality-less void of a human doormat. In the book, she's like that so that readers can insert themselves into the narrative (there's a name for this, only I can't remember it). She's so thick that when Christian does stuff she doesn't like, she doesn't even use the safe word he's given her, she just starts crying instead.

Likeability of love interest
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 very disappointed in this. In the book, Fanny escapes the brothel to live with love of her life, Charles. Charles is skint but he loves Fanny, and when his horrid family find out they have him shipped off to the navy against his will. Later he comes back to find her, and he's such a nice guy he never even reproaches Fanny about working as a whore, he's just damn glad to find her. In the play, Charles has been completely removed as a character, thus destroying the central conceit of the story, which basically runs the gamut of sex from depraved lust to the passion of true love.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 He might have ripped abs and loads of cash, but Christian Grey is really an unattractive man. He has no wit, no humour, and no interests apart from weird sex. Also, he has fucking terrible taste in interior decor. Christian Grey reproaches Anastasia about everything.

Sense of humour
Fanny Hill (the play) 4/5. Lots of humour, but got bogged down in political correctness at some points.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5. None. Though I did LOL at a couple of things that weren't meant to be funny.

Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 oh these were brilliant. Everyone involved, male and female, looked brilliant and scorching hot. Fab fab fab 18th century costumes. Bring back breeches I say.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 these were awful. Christian wears expensive, dull suits, and Anastasia is so free of free will or personality of any kind that she mostly wears jeans and white T-shirts.

Fanny Hill (the play) 3/5 there was a great box that opened up to show an 18th-century bedroom but overall I felt the look wasn't as dank and dark and atmospheric as might have been justified by the period.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 Christian Grey's oh-so-expensive penthouse apartment is furnished like the window of House of Fraser furnishings dept. The room he makes Anastasia sleep in is like a suburban dream of sophistication that wouldn't look amiss in a semi-detached in Surrey. Everything around him has that soulless, characterless look of an upmarket chain hotel.

Fanny Hill (the play) 5/5 this was great, wonderful fiddling and bawdy singing by all involved.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Pleasant enough background, but I literally can't remember one thing that stood out.

Faitfulness of Adaptation
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 I do understand it's difficult to render 240 pages of varied shagging in a manner that won't get your theatre closed down. But they literally lost the plot! The whole thing became massively less interesting by the removal of the dramatic arc. Quite miffed about this.
50 Shades (the film) 4/5 Basically the plot intact but with the fortunate removal of EL James unfortunate writing style.

How long you have to wait before getting any
Fanny Hill (the book) 9 pages. About the same on stage.
50 Shades (the book) A godawful 146 pages. The film mercifully a lot less.

Actual levels of sexiness:
Fanny Hill (the play) 3/5 Bawdy and funny, but not particularly titillating.
50 Shades (the film) 1/5 Christian Grey made me think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. I literally can't imagine anything worse. The entire thing was completely devoid of erotic charge, unless you get an erotic charge by thinking about being able to buy all the things in the House of Fraser furnishings dept.

Quality of Climax:
Fanny Hill (the play) 2/5 This was good fun for a while, but ended more with a whimper than a bang, and to be honest I'd lost interest about ten minutes previously.
50 Shades (the film) 2/5 Anastasia leaves in a lift after Christian slaps her bottom too hard. I can't describe the feeling of relief.

Best bit:
Fanny Hill (the play) Caroline Quentin hanging off a chandelier with a bloke's head up her skirt.
50 Shades (the film) The helicopter. Look, we'd all like a free helicopter ride.

Worst Bit:
Fanny Hill (the play) All the tortuous attempts to be politically correct about sex work.
50 Shades (the film) Every single bit of furniture in Christian Grey's apartment.

In conclusion:
Fanny Hill (the play) 35/50 A decent effort, a good night's entertainment with great acting, music and costumes, but ultimately let down by the pointless, post-modern messing with the narrative of the original novel.

50 Shades (the film) 18/50 A soulless, charmless lovesong to corporate capitalism, and less sexy than a James Bond movie. The only startling aspect was being in a cinema full of women. I say full. I mean half-full. It's like someone actually noticed that we're allowed out on our own.

The conclusion, concluded:
Fanny Hill: Try reading the book
50 Shades: Try watching Secretary

Monday, 2 February 2015

Ten things we could learn from the Austrians

Last week I went to a work meeting in Vienna. I was a bit gobsmacked as it made me realise that many things we put up with as normal in England aren't necessary at all, and that many of the things we struggle with, they've actually managed to fix. Some of these solutions looked pretty radical to me, which is weird as Austria has a reputation as a conservative country. If you asked an Austrian, I think they'd say they do these things because they're traditional, and because they don't like change, rather than because they do. It's all in the perception, I guess.

1) How to run a city transport system
Vienna's public transport system is amazing. Things link up, so tram lines in radial spokes meet underground lines, which go around in circles. Where streets are too narrow for trams, dinky emission-free buses pootle around. Because public transport is so good, there are fewer cars, which spend less time in jams. Because public transport is cheap, only richer people own cars, which means more BMWs and Audis than coughing old bangers. However, even the BMWs make way for trams and pedestrians. Outside my hotel, the tram platform was the car lane (raised to floor level so you could wheel a pram/wheelchair out). When the tram stopped, the cars stopped behind the ramp, while the passengers got in and out. I didn't see one driver huffing or revving their engine: while everything seemed to move slower than in a British city, they actually got there a lot faster.

Viennese traffic lights also have more signals (same colours). When a light for cars is about to change from green, it flashes twice, goes green for about three seconds, then starts to change to yellow. This warning means the ability of cars to shoot lights is reduced, and makes crossing the road feel safer. Pedestrian crossing lights turn green as usual, and for the last few seconds flash, so you can decide to make a run for it, or wait, if you're slower moving. There is also a mechanism for visually impaired people that makes a clicking noise to signal the crossing.

All kinds of public transport run off one ticket, €16 for 3 days. You check this once, and there are no more barriers, so people flow off and on far quicker than here. The entire system is built with the goal of keeping people and traffic moving, rather than ensuring everyone pays. The result is that moving around the city (and breathing) is a pleasant, stress-free experience.

2) Safety and security isn't about oppressing people
At Bristol airport, security went through all my belongings, even my underwear, and the books in my bag, flicking through pages in case I had concealed an old shopping list. I waited at the departure gate with Sky News on a big screen, showing all the latest terrorism news in endless rotation. Next to me, a young man of mixed race, who, judging from the amount of designer labels he was sporting, must have been either a footballer or a fashion model, was visibly trying not to look nervous in case anyone noticed he looked nervous and shot him pre-emptively. It was terrible, like someone had read a dystopian novel and thought it was a how-to manual, not a satire.

Spot the security precautions
In Vienna, I wandered down a picturesque alleyway, and found I'd just walked under the Foreign Ministry. Not a policeman in sight. None outside the parliament building; one outside the president's office, looking sleepy in the sunlight. I did see police, driving around in converted VW camper van type things with sirens that make pathetic farty noises instead of the stress-inducing shrieking of the US-style ones. Maybe because its actually very easy to drive through Viennese traffic, or because it's pointless trying to shove a tram out of the way, I don't know. I know its hideously politically incorrect but I did find myself wondering – how did we end up with a more fascist security state than a country that once voluntarily elected the Nazis? Something's gone a bit wrong, I think.

It's not just the police - in Vienna no-one checks your transport ticket, either. Presumably you can get busted for travelling without one, but generally the abiding assumption – whether buying coffee, travelling, or paying for your dinner, is that people are law-abiding. I felt extremely safe, not just from the big things that politicians like to scare us with, but from the little things that grind you down. I felt safe on my own, in bars, in the street, on the transport, at any time of day or night. I felt that there was an expectation that it was safe, and because of that generalised understanding, if something bad had happened, then that would have have been a failure and an embarrassment for everyone, not for me. In Britain, I tend to feel the expectation that if something bad happens, I would be considered at fault. I know this is chicken and egg, but – don't people act more trustworthy when they're trusted?

3) How to not have a toxic food environment
It was amazing to be somewhere where food was dished out like nobody'd even heard of calories. There was meat, there was cheese, there was soup with cream and wine. There was strudel and cake and slatherings of fruit, with cream. Washed down with pickles and beer and wine and coffee and liqueurs. What there wasn't, was junk food. There were very few burger or chip places, most places sold Austrian food. This food would horrify the average dieter or health food freak, but they'd have to be horrified and hungry because I didn't see any 'diet' or weird fad foods at all. Judging from the restaurant menus nobody seemed to have heard of food allergies either. I can't help thinking there's a connection.

4) How to not get fat, while still eating ridiculous cakes
Because of the food, you might expect the Austrians to be a nation of fat bastards. Annoyingly, people are much slimmer than in England. I've a number of theories on this. Firstly I think this may be because they're just enjoying their food, instead of obsessing about it in a binge/guilt cycle. Also because they're running for the tram in the cold instead of fuming in a traffic jam, drinking bucket-sized lattes. Because most shops close at 6pm, supermarkets 8pm, and restaurants stop serving food at 10, actual access to food is reduced. But mainly because they eat a balanced diet made up of proper meals, enjoy it, and don't endlessly snack on crap.
I didn't intentionally take this photo in pornographic soft focus. Honest.
5) It's Ok to eat gherkins with every meal.
Look, for all I know this may be the secret to No4, above.

6) The proper size for a coffee is about the same as a teacup.
Who thought half-litres of crappy, milk-foamed coffee were a good idea, anyway?

7) How to keep capitalism in its place
After my first day wandering around, I thought I hadn't seen any billboards. On the second day, I counted, and confirmed a shocking total of Nil. There are shopfront signs and ads, but plastered on massive boards across the city? Nope. None, so I concluded it must be illegal. I normally don't think about ads much, but I started to think it made a massive difference to the general feeling and ethos of the city. People didn't look stressed because they weren't constantly having stuff thrown at them that they should want, and anyway, if they did want stuff - the shops were probably shut, thus forcing them to undertake non-shopping leisure activities, instead.

For example, this poor lad has been forced to march up and down with a trombone, instead of hanging out in a mall.

8) How not to care that you're uncool.
I'm not quite sure if this is a result of the previous thing, but the Viennese are without doubt the uncoolest people I've ever laid eyes on. They like classical music. They like dressing up in traditional dress which involves lederhosen and frills. They like churches. They like flowers and statues and icing-cake frontages, and gilt and floral decorations and gilded floral decorations and floral gilded decorations and cake and bookshops and hats with feathers in. They like accordions. They don't like all this ironically. They don't even know what ironic means. They have never heard of kitsch, over-the-top-ness, or hipsterism. The tube maps are incomprehensible, because all the graphic designers have fled, screaming, from the unironic gilded floral decorations, and gone somewhere they can get buckets of hideous coffee at 3am.

9) How not to fix things that ain't broken
'One every 30 years'
You might think that I'm describing a very very rich place, and that everything is swish and fancy. Austria is a rich country, similar to Germany, but there was none of the oceans of money washing around in Vienna that there is London. Some things, though originally very grand, had been allowed to become quite shabby. What I did notice is that instead of tearing things down and building new ones, they love bodging things together, and fixing stuff. They still have repair shops. I saw several buildings that had been slapped back together after the war and since they were holding together fine they'd just been left like that. Some of the trams look 50 years old. The platform arrangement I described, would, in Britain, have been ripped out and replaced, expensively. Instead, the bodge-job solution worked both technically and socially. A lady in a clothes shop showed me a traditional man's coat (cost €800-€1000) and said, quite calmly, 'Men generally buy one about every 30 years.'

10) Inequality really does make life less pleasant. 
Austria has a Gini coefficient of 26.3. The UK has Gini coefficient of 32.8. That's a measure of how equal or unequal your society is. I.e. their society is much more equal than ours. It sounds like something very academic, but the fact is, more equality makes life more pleasant from the moment you step out the door.

And finally...

Three things we couldn't learn from the Austrians

1) How to put the teabag in before the water.
Guys. This is basic.

2) Benches in public places are a good thing.
My back is still hurting.

3) How to deal with difficult things in your history.
Don't even get me started on this one.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Why horrid is the new real... allegedly.

This is a blog post about horrible. If you want to read something nice, try somewhere else today.

I started thinking about horrible as a thing, as a cultural concept, a few weeks ago. I was in a cafe working on my laptop. It was an irredeemably hipster cafe, manned by two young chaps sporting the usual hipster uniform of tight jeans, lumber shirt, beard and beanie. In case you think this is just going to be me slagging off hipsters, I should point out they both seemed lovely: friendly, intelligent, and really cared that you got a nice cup of tea. They just had horrible clothes. I don't think it's news to anyone that hipster fashion is horrible.

Some people think fashion is meaningless, that it doesn't say anything, but that's mainly because it's mostly associated with women, and thus can't be a proper sort of culture. I think fashion says a lot about the time it lives in. Victorian fashion says 'Look at my prosperity - I have money to spend on all this stuff'; 1920s fashion says 'I'm liberated and in a new century'; 1960s fashion says 'Welcome to the space age, baby – but don't forget men are still men, and women are still dolls'. Modern hipster fashion, to me, seems to say 'I can't afford to pay the heating bill, and don't expect anyone else to.'

After a while, one of the hipster guy's girlfriends came in. She was dressed more or less pretty much the same as he was, except for the beard. She sat down and read a book, quietly, for a while, and I couldn't help thinking how subdued they all seemed, for a bunch of people who must all be about, I dunno, twenty-three. The only loud person was a girl who came in and talked loudly for about ten minutes, passionately, about coffee. Is it normal to be passionate about coffee when you're twenty-three? The hipster guy's girlfriend didn't talk passionately about anything. She was beautiful but you had to look really hard at her to see it: like she was a bit embarrassed that anyone might notice. I wanted her not to be: I wanted her to feel proud of herself, and of her chap, since he actually seemed like a really nice guy. I wished they were somewhere better, somewhere warmer perhaps, dressed in clothes that expressed some sort of hope, and maybe laughed a bit more loudly. I wished they had expressed some dissatisfaction more noisily than through their horrible, joyless clothes.

Of course, fashion is not the only thing doing horrible right now. There is also horrible design to go with the horrible fashion. Weirdly, some of the horrible design isn't necessarily cheap. I know of several cafés that have had the perfectly pleasant décor ripped out, at considerable cost, to make it look more derelict. One café I frequent got rid of the perfectly functional white china mugs to replace them with lidless, handled jamjars. They also attempted to disguise the fact that they traded from a lovely listed Georgian house by making it look more like a cowshed. It must have cost a fortune.

On a larger scale, horrible proliferates across our cityscapes. Cheap, badly made buildings are flung up with a bravado that suggests 'if you don't like it, you're yesterday's news, Granddad'. London in particular is being overwhelmed by the massive, hideous structures spreading out from the City of London.

Horrible fashion, horrible design, are only part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. There's plenty of horrible coming down from on high. The chancellor, George Osborne, is like a national figurehead of horrible. Unpleasant in manner and demeanour, disliked even by most of his own side, he is wheeled out to let the nation know that things are only going to get worse. Politically, this is very odd: the usual trick of politicians is to tell people how great everything will be, while surreptitiously clouting them. But it's like Osborne is considered more real, more honest, because he's well, horrid.

In economics, and in business, being horrible is considered proof of your ability to handle a situation. There is a TV programme called The Apprentice, in which a bunch of horrible people complete to be more horrible than each other, to win the approval of the entirely horrible Alan Sugar. This, apparently, is 'real' business. Scheduled at the same time as The Apprentice, is a show about an actual business, the elderly and eccentric Liberty of London. You get to see the Liberty staff spending a lot of time and effort being nice to their customers, and the management team deploying diplomacy skills fit to end a small war, in order to work with and around some of the eccentric people involved. But it isn't watched half as much as The Apprentice: it's just not as horrible.

Horrible infects fiction too. Everyone raves about Sherlock, in which a horrible, dysfunctional genius solves crimes. Ok, Sherlock is a bit horrible in the books. But he doesn't incidentally abuse Watson, his sidekick. We've made him more horrible, because that's more edgy, and somehow, more real. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock, is lauded for portraying him like this, as if he is very brave. Cumberbatch also recently played Alan Turing, who he played as horrible and mean. Turing was a lot of things, but I have not seen any actual evidence he was unpleasant. Why? Why does everything have to be?

Ah, I hear you cry, because capitalism. Capitalism is horrid, you see. Now, I would like to examine this a bit. Of course there are aspects of capitalism that are unpleasant. But the fundamental trick of capitalism is to produce things that make people's lives more pleasant. Hungry? Buy bread. Bored of bread? Try cake. Cold? Have a coat, have a duvet, have a central heating system. You move upwards with more and more people getting these things, and everyone profits all the way. But modern economics seems to have gone off this idea, and decided that people who have heating can make do with duvets, and people who have cake can make do with bread. I would like to explain the rationale behind this, but I'm sorry, I'm unable.

This autumn, I had quite a large refund from an overcharged utility bill, and thought – being usually on a tight budget - I would treat myself a bit. Now, in a properly functioning capitalist economy there should have been a queue of people wanting to relieve me of my cash. Instead I found it surprisingly hard to spend a couple of hundred quid because so much of the stuff that was on offer was simply horrible. Badly designed, ill-made, and shoddy.

I also wanted, on my day off, to go to the cinema, but I didn't, because there were only films about superheroes and stuff aimed at teenage boys, at the main cinema. At the art cinema they had 'gritty' on offer, instead, which is a way of saying 'depressing'. I would have seen a comedy, if it'd actually been funny, or a romance, or an adventure, or even a war film if it hadn't been relentlessly depressing. But comedy is mostly aimed at mocking people these days, and romance is deemed too embarrassing for men to witness, so it isn't really made. Films about winning wars are a bit awkward, since these days we only lose them. So I went home with my tenner in my pocket. Capitalism #fail.

During this same period, I recieved several letters from various companies, all asking me to prove that I didn't owe them money, which I didn't. It took me several weeks to respond, and the letters kept coming. They all seemed quite resentful of the thought that I might have some money that they couldn't simply remove from me at will. It's like the whole idea that I earnt some money and then freely decided how to dispose of it, and indeed that I might have any money at all, that was mine and not theirs, made them actually quite angry.

These things are not about capitalism. Capitalism is about supply and demand. Failing to provide things for which there is a demand, and forcing people to consume that which has been supplied, whether they want it or not, isn't capitalism. It's a feature of failing centrally-run economies like those of the latter-day Soviet Union.

I'm not denying that Capitalism can be horrid. It's just that it isn't intrinsically. The Victorians used it to build many beautiful structures and buildings. But try suggesting that to any modern architect and they'll laugh (or cry). Because that isn't where we're at right now. What we do now, is horrid.

I'm not quite sure when we decided that horrible was a new cultural good, and somehow more 'real' and authentic than good things. Ask yourself, are the bad things that happened in your life more real than the good ones? Did your horrid boyfriend, nasty flatmate, tasteless dinner or vile job have a tang of authenticity that the better ones didn't? No? Really, funny that.

It's hard to recognise a cultural phenomenon when you're inside it, a bit like sitting in a giant balloon and not realising there's an outside. But if you think a few things are quite horrible right now, you're not mad – they are – and trust me, in a few years this 'authenticity of horrid' will look as fake, stinky, and out-of-date as a polyester shirt. Because horrible is just a fashion, a cultural fad, and truly – a collective insanity. Being horrible will not make your business succesful, having horrid tattoos will not make you sexy, and horrid plates will not make the food taste better in your restaurant. Telling a horrid story will not make it more true. Also, the opposite of horrible is not nice, which is a little bit weedy and fake. The opposite of horrible is wonderful.

I don't know how to resist the overwhelming tide of horrid except by refusing to be. How you do that is up to you, I believe. I don't really know what we should do. I just think that sometimes it helps to be able to point at something, and call it by its right name.


PS I wrote this yesterday before the Paris shooting. I feel like ISIS/ISIL or whatever you want to call them are just another manifestion of the worship of horrible. They think they are more islamic because they are more horrible.

Unfortunately for some people horrible is just a matter of slugging through a bunch of depressing crapness. For other people it is a matter of life and death.

This is equally true of sick people in damp council flats who have had their benefits cut, as it is of cartoonists gunned down for taking the piss.