What’s Been On My Mind This Week

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[Warning! Contains spoilers of this week’s episode of Last Tango In Halifax.]

1. It was claimed this week that there are plans in place for Britain’s first LGBT school. The way in which the news was reported, and the outcry it raised, prompted the charity in question, LGBT North West, to issue a statement clarifying their position. Apparently the charity is only in the ‘early consultation’ stage, and they don’t expect any potential school to have only pupils who identify as LGBT, but that it would be ‘inclusive’, and modelled on the famous Harvey Milk school in New York. What is distressing is that there are apparently some young LGBT people who have said that they would feel more comfortable attending such a school, where their sexuality wouldn’t make them the victims of bullying, or worse. While attending such a school might make the victims feel (temporarily) safer, segregation seems like a huge step backwards. Instead of removing such pupils from mainstream education, we should be doing more to tackle ignorance and prejudice head on, whether it is in response to someone’s sexuality, race, gender or religion. School should be a place of safety, of course, but it is also about preparing children for adulthood, and our society is diverse and multicultural, and schools should reflect that.

2. I never thought I would take so much interest in the price of milk, and yet, this week, that is exactly what has happened. Shortly after Christmas the major supermarkets released their trading reports for the festive season, and they didn’t make for particularly happy reading, as most retailers endured a particularly bad festive season. As a result, the heavy hitters are now embroiled in bitter price wars, which seem to benefit the consumer but will actually have wide-ranging effects. This is particularly evident in the case of milk, which is now at its lowest price since 2007, even though costs to dairy farmers have risen by almost 40% in that same period. Almost 10,000 dairy farmers have left the industry since 2002, and 60 quit in December 2014 alone. As the supermarkets battle it out on the big stage for footfall and volume sales, they see milk, a staple, as a loss leader. Even though a pint of milk costs a dairy farmer 34p a pint to produce, they only receive 27p for it, and supermarkets are selling it at about 22p a pint. Some, but not all, supermarkets pay dairy farmers at least the cost of production, while other farmers have seen payments delayed by up to two weeks. It’s not only Britain’s tradition of dairy farming that is under threat, as many other food and drink suppliers are also close to being put out of business in the supermarket race to the bottom. It’s difficult as a consumer not to be enticed by the low prices, with all the supermarkets advertising which products now cost less than the same item at their nearest rival, but we need to remember that we’ll be paying the real cost some other way.

3. The political parties are now very much in campaigning mode as we approach the general election on May 7th. Yet what is making the headlines is Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that he will not take part in any televised debates in the run-up to the election unless the Green Party is included. The regulator Ofcom recently ruled that the Green Party doesn’t have ‘national status’, whereas UKIP (in its opinion) does. This means that Nigel Farage, the UKIP party leader, will be allowed to debate on national television, whereas the Green Party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, will not, even though figures show that the Green Party now has around 2,000 more members than UKIP. The broadcasters can decide to include the Green Party, but Ofcom’s ruling makes that unlikely. Unsurprisingly, Miliband, Clegg and Farage have united in their opposition to Cameron, accusing him of cowardice.

In a time when the electorate is disengaged, when politicians can seem very similar, and when all we hear from them are soundbites which are rigidly scripted and controlled, televised debates are of vital importance, even though they are a recent introduction to this country: 2010 was the first year in which the leaders of the three main political parties in the UK debated on television. The debates provide a way in which voters can feel more involved in the election process (and 22 million tuned in to watch the debates in 2010, which were instrumental in boosting the Liberal Democrats’ performance in the election that year), and the format ensures that politicians cannot always stick to a script, because they are put under pressure, forced to battle their opposition head-to-head on live television. Following his miserable performance last time, it’s easy to see why Cameron would want to avoid televised debates this year. Moreover, Nigel Farage is gradually chipping away at the Conservative Party base, and is still riding a small wave of popularity. If he performed well in a live debate, he could do further damage. Similarly, were the Green Party to be included and if Natalie Bennett performed well , they might continue their gradual erosion of the Labour Party, whom they accuse of no longer being left-wing enough. The Liberal Democrats are also at risk of losing votes to the Green Party in May’s election. Cameron is right to ask that the Green Party be included, not only because it is fair, but also because it might help the Conservatives in May if the Green Party performs strongly. However, he should participate in debates whether or not the Greens are included, not only because he has much to lose by showing an unwillingness to do so (and much to gain if he seizes the opportunity and debates well), but also because he has a duty to be accountable to the voters, and not try to play it safe.

4. Following Channel 4’s announcement that they have introduced new diversity quotas which will ensure that at least one lead character in all their scripted programmes is from an ethnic minority background, has a disability, or is LGBT, or, failing that, that at least half the lead roles are female, and that similar quotas apply to the creative teams behind drama programming, this piece arguing that more diverse casting makes for better drama ran in the New Statesman.

I had both these in the back of my mind as I was watching this week’s episode of Last Tango In Halifax. It might be verging too closely on the soap opera for some, but I enjoy it for numerous reasons, not least because, thus far, it has seemed different from other primetime dramas in that it’s predominantly about older characters and the relationship between a couple in their seventies and the lives of their daughters, who are in their forties. It also featured a seemingly functional lesbian relationship (normally lesbian characters suddenly realise they’re straight, or they’re shown to be psychotic, or they’re just never allowed to be happy). Caroline and Kate were neither of these. Their relationship was loving and believable, and not always easy (Caroline’s mother, Celia, played by Anne Reid, was never very happy her successful daughter, who was once married to a man with whom she had two children, suddenly decided she was gay). In the previous episode, Caroline and a heavily pregnant Kate even got married, and they seemed to be going from strength to strength. But, of course, we all know that lesbian relationships aren’t allowed to thrive on British television. And, therefore, poor Kate was killed off in the next episode, the day after her wedding. I have a huge amount of respect for Sally Wainwright, the woman behind Last Tango (and also the creator of other hugely successful programmes such as Scott & Bailey and Happy Valley), and love how she creates such strong dramas that are focussed on women, and that those women are flawed and real. Yet I can’t help but feel that Wainwright – for all the agonising she claims to have done (see this interview) over what to do with Kate – is guilty (as many television writers are) of including lesbians as a plot device. When lesbians have equal representation with gay men on television, when – more to the point – women have parity with men and LGBT characters with straight, when disabled actors and actors of colour aren’t so rare on our screens, then maybe it won’t be so bad when such a relationship and a character is killed off in the service of the plot.

5. This week I’ve been reading an absolutely incredible debut novel: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill. Smaill is a classically-trained violinist, and her novel is set in a reimagined London, in a world where the written word (called ‘code’ in the novel) has been replaced with music and where people can no longer form memories. Simon, however, an orphan, appears to be something of an exception to this rule, though he doesn’t understand why or how. After making his way to London he meets Lucien, a pactrunner, who lives in the tunnels underneath the Thames. As the two start to become friends, Lucien encourages Simon to try and remember more about his past, and his parents, and as he does so, terrible truths begin to emerge… I’m not a particular fan of so-called ‘dystopian fiction’, and rarely read anything even tangentially SFF-related. However, Smaill wears the dystopian label so lightly, and has created such an interesting picture of an alternative London (e.g. Batter Sea, Green Witch), that it’s easy to become a part of the world she has created. Moreover, Smaill’s prose is absolutely stunning (it’s no surprise to discover that she’s a celebrated poet), befitting a novel which is all about music. Music is the way people in the world of The Chimes communicate (tunes and melodies are used in place of memory, they function as directions, as signifiers of identity, as feelings within the body), and Smaill’s language is different enough to reflect this, and yet not too weird so as to become alienating. It takes a few pages to grow accustomed to it, but I was soon fully immersed and marvelling at the rhythm and musicality of each sentence. I defy anyone who’s ever studied music not to fall in love with The Chimes, but even if you haven’t, it’s still a beautiful novel that’s about friendship and sacrifice as well as music and memory, and the last hundred pages read almost like a thriller. Already a strong contender for books of 2015.

6. A group of young men from Southend-on-Sea, called Nothing But Thieves, have been on my radar this week. They’ve just released a new single, but it’s really their debut 4-track EP, ‘Graveyard Whistling’, released six months ago, that has kept me listening. The combination of lyrics, vocals and strong guitar accompaniment is – of course – reminiscent of Coldplay (and who wouldn’t want to be the next Coldplay, after all?), but Nothing But Thieves pack a lot into four songs, demonstrating a refreshing range and willingness to experiment, combining their strong lyrics with big beats one moment and electronics the next. I’m not sure yet how I feel about their latest single (‘Ban All the Music’), but I do like that they’re continuing to do something different with each song they produce, and I’ll definitely be looking out for whatever comes next.

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Categories: On My Mind . . .

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2 replies

  1. I’d missed your Sunday posts – I read them religiously. 🙂 And I’d sure love to borrow the book, it sounds amazing!

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