Thursday 27 January 2011

Holocaust Memorial 2011

Cold but not bitter, the Holocaust Memorial in the Abbey Garden was quietly organized with the planting of snowdrops. Pearly lanterns against the grey earth.

A few flakes of snow fell but the air was still; they whirled down and vanished. The gardeners, earth-born in gillets and knitted hats, stood looking much like any workmen from the last fifteen hundred years, waiting while the frozen children sang the song they had rehearsed.

The children's reedy voices fluted up thorugh the bare branches, the ringing of their chime bars created an elegant minimalist memorial, bright as silver, fragile as peace.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Marriage a la mode - popcorn

I don't think much of the Christian Institute; it takes unsophisticated people like Peter and Hazelmary Bull and makes meejah capital out of them. Had they read the post Marriage a la Mode - gay and the comments there under, they would have known:
Civil Partnerships are marriage in all but name. In some people's eyes you aren't married but they probably won't accept that you are civilly partnered anyway. The law simply has no traction over that. So What? Nothing follows from this, except if they try to deny you rights to which you are legally entitled, in which case you can take legal action.
It was thought that the argument would come over whether orthodox churches could be compelled to perform gay marriages, but this is unlikely due to primary legislation defining marriage as involving a man and a woman. I also said in the comments that:
I await with a bag of popcorn the clashing arguments of freedom of religious expression and the primacy of civil rights law.
Turns out the the challenge had in fact begun in 2008 in the small Chymorvah Private Hotel in Cornwall and followed the 2006 Equality Act and, crucially, secondary legislation in The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

The hoteliers, Mr Peter and Hazelmary Bull do not regard civil partnerships as marriage - because it isn't in law or Scripture - and wish to provide hospitality in accordance with their Christian beliefs. They want unmarried couples in separate rooms. Since 1 May 2007 the law has required people in civil partnerships to be treated the same way as married couples in the provision of goods and services.

(I've linked to the Netlawman version because it is the easier layout to read.)

Note that this is secondary legislation, Statutory Instrument No. 1263 of 2007 . The SI was subject to the affirmative procedure, which is supposed to provide more scrutiny than just a nod if nobody shouts. For a description of the procedure, see page 5 of this briefing.

In practice only a dedicated tracker would be able to keep up with the process. Fortunately for Stonewall, it receives some hefty donations to help it do just that. See page 15 of the Stonewall 2009 Report and Accounts for a list of major donors, including:
Equality and Human Rights Commission £96,904
(this was the body which supported the case)
Greater London Authority £12,000
Scottish Government - Voluntary Action Fund £190,921
Welsh Assembly Government £109,996.
Stonewall's (charity no. 1101255) total income 2009 £3,843,063
Do please click on page 15; only four are picked out for illustration. In comparision, the Christian Institute (charity no.1004774) , who advised the Bulls, received donations and grants totaling £1,620,874 in a similar accounting period, but does not list the donors so it is not possible to see if there is a symmetry of receipts from public bodies. The overview suggests not, that the donations are from private individuals, but without the breakdown it is not possible to say for sure.

The explanatory note to the SI (linked below) insists that a reliable consultation procedure was carried out and that there was widespread public support for the measure, and that it reflects such exemptions as where justified. The SI is algebraic to read, full of As and Bs and IFs, so the explanatory note to the instrument is an important aid to understanding

Explanatory note from the UK legislation database:
7.14 The Regulations will make clear that married persons and civil partners are in materially the same position for the purposes of the regulations. This would remove a possible obstacle to civil partners bringing a discrimination claim on grounds of sexual orientation against a provider of goods and services who denied them access to a benefit or service that was being offered to a married person in a similar situation.
Or as it says in the explanatory notes to the made version:
Regulation 3(4) provides that for the purpose of the provisions defining whether discrimination has taken place, when comparing the treatment of two people, the fact that one is a civil partner and the other is married is not a material difference in the circumstances.
When the Christian Institute approached the senior citizen hoteliers Peter and Hazelmary Bull to help with with the case which had been brought against them by Martyn Hall and his civil partner Steven Preddy it became part of the Institute's continuing campaign to show that Christians face discrimination in the practice of their religion.

Sensible advice would have been to warn Mr and Mrs Bull, that in the Statutory Instrument which came in to force in April 2007 was a clause which required civil partnership to be treated as marriage, that they were very likely to lose because they didn't come within any of the exemptions, and if they were told to pay the costs as well as compensation, they could think of a big number and double it.

Had the Bulls backed down and offered compensation they would have been exposed to only a fraction of the expense and strain, and could probably have spun the lower publicity in to increased bookings. The Christian Institute could have explained the current law to the Bulls and not used them as cause celebres. Obviously a client's wishes must take precedence but it is the lawyer's job, even if working for free, to warn the client when they are on a hiding to nothing under the current regime. Let's hope the Christian Institute are picking up the costs for the Bulls.

Let's have a look at that S.I, courtesy of Netlawman. Here's the relevant point edited to bring out the structure:
(4) For the purposes of paragraphs (1) and (3),
the fact that one of the persons (whether or not B) is a civil partner
while the other is married
shall not be treated as a material difference
in the relevant circumstances.
The legal intention is clear: a civil partnership is not a material difference to marriage for the purposes of justifying different treatment. So don't try it, because it won't work.

One of the remarks made by the Judge Andrew Rutherford at Bristol County Court was that if the claimants, Hall and Preddy, had 'set up' the Bulls or were part of a sting operation, then damages would be curtailed. Strange to note, then, that the on-line booking form for Chymorvah makes the Bull's religious views reasonably clear:

Here at Chymorvah we have few rules, but please note that as Christians we have a deep regard for marriage (being the union of one man to one woman for life to the exclusion of all others).

Therefore, although we extend to all a warm welcome to our home, our double bedded accommodation is not available to unmarried couples – Thank you

Whether the Bulls were prepared to let them have the twin-bedded room, Trigge, is not recorded. Interestingly, this is a change from the wording which was earlier alleged to have been "we prefer to let double accommodation to heterosexual married couples only" says the Daily Mail, which suggests the wording was changed after a letter from Stonewall. One wonders how likely it is that Hall and Preddy were unaware of other legal challenges, or that they didn't read the hotel's website? They maintain they did not see it.

What the name and the wording suggests, however, is that the Bulls thought of themselves as running a home where they allowed people to stay overnight, as opposed to a hotel where they happened to be operators who also owned the building and lived there . They had mis-read the situation. Their freehold makes no difference to the legal position.

There is a very limited exemption under s.6 for someone taking in a close family member or similar in to their homes, but s.4.2(b) makes it clear:
Paragraph (1) applies, in particular, to— ...accommodation in a hotel, boarding house or similar establishment,
John Wadham of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has been crowing that this is a landmark decision. Pish. It is a county court judge reading and correctly applying an SI which contained measures which mean that if push comes to shove, civil law trumps religious protocols in the booking of hotel rooms which are not part of religious organizations, and that goes for whoever is running the business, however small.

In general, the proposition that the secular law (both civil and criminal) should prevail over religious views has wide support. This is not so difficult to understand in the public sphere. Ms Ladele (a previous Christian Institute case) was a registrar and her job was to register civil partnerships, not have an opinion on whether this was morally defensible. Supermarket staff cannot refuse to handle goods on the basis that the items are forbidden in their religion. There are limits however. For example, the law recognizes the right of medics to refuse to take part in an abortion. It recognizes that for reasons of religious belief, pre-stunning before the slaughter of animals may not be enforced even though much secular opinion thinks it should be.

Despite the views of Judge Andrew Rutherford, Mr and Mrs Bull have a great deal of support in the country as it is by no means clear to people with better things to do than grovel around in the pocket-lint of discrimination legislation, why a pair of small business owners should be forced to facilitate sodomy in their own homes against their religion but are prohibited from allowing a paying guest to smoke indoors when they may have no objection to it.

Friday 14 January 2011

Domesday Ambridge

The Gospel Oak in Winter by Ms Caroline Bone
Words on the funeral of Nigel Pargetter of Lower Loxley

Over at the Archers the words continue to fly over the execution of Nigel Pargetter. Vanessa Whitburn, late of Brookside, claims that the wider audience loved it. She believes she is a far-sighted dramatist bringing cutting-edge realism to an old format.

The commentariat - whom Whitburn believes are unrepresentative of the five million audience as a whole - say they aren't listening and don't want that story line. If they wanted realistic drama, they'd open a book or go to the theatre or perhaps pick a DVD. They are a literate audience, not dependent on Whitburn for their high culture. Also, they've got enough trouble with real grief and 'ishoos' and don't need to feed vampirishly off fictional grief, thank you very much.

They regard Whitburn to be much less technically adept as a dramatist than she thinks herself. They don't believe a farmer who has been stuck in a ditch and nearly died, had a tree he was felling fall on a farm worker killing him, and had his cousin squashed by a tractor, would go up on an icy roof in the middle of the night for a poxy banner. There is another Archer who is stupid enough to do it, but he's bone idle and would have left the banner up there until it was current again. They also plain don't like her, regarding anyone who dismisses an actor by phone after almost thirty years collaboration as demonstrating supremely bad manners and encapsulating everything which is wrong with the Archers, the BBC and indeed, the country.

Whitburn was acting within the law; the Archers actors are not on employee contracts but are freelancers and the recording schedule jigs around their other paying work. Still, it was both callous and cowardly, a personal failing, to do that over the phone when the charming Graham Seed deserved at the very least a visit. As many listeners expect bad news about their own jobs in the coming months, they identified with a man pleading for his character to be spared.

Like the failure of the BBC to realize quickly enough why the Jonathan Ross episode was such a danger to them, Whitburn continues to think this was Seed's fault for not being in her office when she wanted to sack him. How dare the audience complain, who do they think they are, the people who pay her wages? In Whitburn's Ambridge, Seed is only a bloke so he doesn't matter and he hasn't got any special cards such as being black or gay or lefty. He should think himself lucky he got a phone call; he could have found out when he opened the script.

The Archers is Middle England's 15-minute coffee-time treat during the day or perhaps their Sunday soak instead of going to church. They are part of the congregation of Ambridge which was extended by William Smethurst when he edited the show from 1978-1991. It is a very broad congregation indeed which stretches from people who put up wallpaper border strips half-way down the wall in imitation of aristocratic dado rails, to people who inherit good furniture.

Smethurst used his background as a journalist to introduce a feeling of 'all human life is here' in to the story lines, although in fact they were there from the start. Drastic measures had been taken to keep the show on air; the BBC had tried to discontinue it in 1972 in an early showing of spite towards the middle-class audience which had dwindled, despite a 20 year relationship with the village created by Godfrey Baseley in 1950.

Smethurst credited the radio boss Jock Gallagher with defiance at the time, a preparedness to do what would keep the show on the road, although he didn't always think much of the story lines which emerged. He joined as a script writer in 1974 and took over the editor/producer's chair in 1978.

Yes, Smethurst spiced-up but the dish but it was still a recognizable product of English literature in a rural setting. The Aga Saga is a regular best-seller, the product for people who would like a country house at Burnham Market but manage with booking a short break in a holiday cottage or, at minimum, lavender bath salts and a face-pack during the omnibus edition, looking forward to a Sunday lunch done in their new Conran chicken-brick. It's traditional, darling. He positioned it for Middle England and proved there was a regular mass audience for an everyday story of country folk, refining and re-tuning the 1950 classic recipe for the 1980s listener, astutely trading on its own nostalgia.

Smethurst has also been credited with injecting humour in to the story, aligning it with comedies of modern manners.

The approach was typified in Smethurst's 1981 book "Ambridge, An English Village Through The Ages". It was a history as written by local people and a history lecturer - all named characters in the show - and contains an early reference to the Reverend A.S. Pargetter who collected and listed the Borsetshire dialect in the 1850s. His son, Edmund Pargetter, extended the volume in to the better known Borsetshire Dialect for publication by the English Dialect Society in 1869.

"Undoubtedly the most famous work on dialect lexis is Joseph Wright's six-volume English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) which remains an essential text for all students of the subject. This pioneering work drew on the collections of the English Dialect Society, set up to gather its data and disbanded in 1896 when it saw its task to having been completed. Decades before Joseph Wright, the English gentleman-scholar Alexander Ellis began to investigate regional pronunciation, no mean feat prior to the invention of the International Phonetic Alphabet and sound recording." Says Clive Upton, professor of modern English language, University of Leeds, substantiating that Smethurst was spot-on with his research, making the fictional Pargetters do what the real Alexander Ellis did.

There are caches of the publications of the English Dialect Society in university libraries. I like to think that at least one of them really is by a Pargetter. Smethurst played a perfect hand of fakes which the English adore, smuggling real history in to fictional accounts.

In 1984 the copy of "Ambridge" which I have here, was presented to Martin Roberts, a pupil at Sandown High School on the Isle of Wight, for winning the Thomas Cup for Physics and Maths. There is no way to know for sure - unless Martin Roberts is out there and able to confirm this - but it is a strange book to give to a teenager unless he was a fan of The Archers and was already a conspirator.

The book is beautifully edited, pitch-perfect for a middlin' audience with a sweet-tooth for accessible history. It presages the current popular history shows such as The Edwardian Farm in collecting the reminisences of Doris and Dan Archer, formalizing the back-story of the village.

In a dizzy display of references, even the backstory has a backstory. The Visit Worcester site milks the connections for all it is worth, as it contains some of the locations Godfrey Baseley had in mind when he wrote the original. Go to the Bull at Inkberrow and complete the circle by looking at Archers memorabilia.

Smethurst kept up the fun with the Archers Official Companion, followed by a cookery book, and then Dan Archer's own memoir. Other spin-off publications fostered audience affection and involvement which helped protect the BBC when serious questions were raised over the BBC's future in the 1980s. Smethurst left the programme in 1991, having been begged to save a TV soap. Vanessa Whitburn took over.

The difference could be summed up as 'pomposity'. Smethurst was not above jazzing up the story, but his game was building a show and hanging on to it, not lecturing the audience. Whitburn was reported by the reputable commentator Gillian Reynolds to have enjoyed working for Smethurst but said "of course the programme was a lot frothier and lighter and less substantial in those days".

Smethurst had a book to sell by 1996 "The Archers: The True Story" and was not impressed by Whitburn's handling of the vehicle. He disapproved of what he called Whitburn's "urbanisation, feminist propaganda and political correctness"

That's the nub of it; Smethurst writes stories you might want to read which build on a tradition of engaging characters and emotions, plausible plotting and properly researched factual backgrounds. Whitburn is writing a story of contemporary issues which claim to be in a rural setting but her agenda is already a period-piece of hectoring social finger-wagging, frozen in the dying days of Spare Rib magazine and Brookside itself, the decline of which Wiki summarizes thus:

"The Gordons were considered miscast and generally unlikeable; furthermore, the abrupt death of Alan in the 2002 siege aftermath, followed shortly after by Debbie dying in a car crash, gave the remaining family a depressive on-screen presence as their children dealt with becoming orphans."

Whitburn's Ratner moment - named for when Gerald Ratner blew up his own company by insulting the intelligence of his customers - came on the Today programme the morning after the 60th Anniversary edition. Two things became startlingly clear; the character was dead, not injured - the cliff hanger had not resolved that - and the real life actor had been prepared to carry on in the role for as long as he was able, so the storyline didn't emerge from him wanting to leave the show. The audience united in rage rather than grief that they had lost the one character they really liked and enjoyed hearing.

Everyone holds their breath for the RAJAR listening numbers, as if hundreds of cogent dramatic analyses from the core audience were not warning enough; this programme has jumped the shark.

Or perhaps it was pushed.

Sunday 9 January 2011


One autumn the wind blew so hard that it pushed the garden gate, which opens in to the back lane, over its rebate, sticking it fast. We were trapped.

Aieee! Trapped

I checked the chocolate biscuit supply and reckoned that so long as you didn't mind a walk, we could manage with just the front door and go along the main road.

The back gate was dodgy all winter, a constant menace as to whether, having let us out, it would let us back in.

Eventually, the weather turned and it was possible to take the gate off and repair it. While Mr Raft sawed and sanded and chamfered and drilled and glued and screwed, I made the tea.

Standing with a mug of tea and admiring his exemplary handiwork, I looked at the other end of the garden where the bushes grow.

That gate, the other gate, the secret gate, was working the whole time.

Tuesday 4 January 2011

The destruction of Ambridge

There are several places I would cheerfully see blown to kingdom come and they are Albert Square, Weatherfield, Emmerdale, and now the village of Ambridge. Leaving aside the first three - because I don't watch their pox-souled inhabitants tear lumps of each other and pretend they in any way reflect the state of the nation or amount to drama - I was an occasional visitor to Ambridge.

Ambridge had the greatest capacity to reflect real-life events in fictional characters to see how things would play out in real-time, using radio in a way that TV cannot match. Like news, satire, magazines and blogs, Ambridge could anticipate events and react to them, sometimes changing the scripts at short notice if the show was overtaken by reality.

Often criticised - rightly - for crude pro-Labour politicking, the series nevertheless managed to examine serious issues such as what happens when tenant farmers go in to debt, how do conservative congregations feel about lady vicars, coping with dementia, planning applications and other personal things such as teenagers taking up with dopey boyfriends or rivalries over pie-making.

They had to use the dramatic convention that people kept talking to each other long after real-world people would have said "That's it, I'm never speaking to you again" and somebody would probably have strangled Linda Snell by now, but you have to give radio dramatists a break; if they don't have people talking they haven't got a show at all.

When long-time inhabitant Phil Archer died, it was because his actor, Norman Painting, died. Many people felt that they were listening to the end of an era in the fictional funeral because his voice had been a welcome presence in their lives. Painting was lucky; perhaps because he was no political threat, he was allowed to live out his radio life as Phil Archer to the conclusion which many people reach where they die of natural causes after a long, blameless life and are loved by their friends and family. It does happen.

Inconveniently for Vanessa Whitburn, the producer, Painting died in late 2009 and so Phil Archer had to depart four months later in February 2010. Ideally, he should have gone in to deep-freeze and been given a ceremonial cremation on Lakey Hill for the 60th anniversary, and hang the rules about open-air incineration. It would have been a controversial story line because it involves conspiratorial villagers, a conflict of laws and opinion, and a possible prosecution of Jill Archer. The cremation could have been disguised as a New Year's bonfire party with the vicar dithering over whether this was or was not in accordance with Phil's Christian beliefs. A defiant Jill could have been arrested and carted off to Borchester nick, with an unaware-Usha suddenly finding herself defending both Jill and her own husband. "We didn't tell you, Usha, because we didn't want to compromise you. This way, you genuinely had no idea Phil was on the pyre".

Instead, the talentless Vanessa Whitburn decided to bump-off Nigel Pargetter merely by pushing him off the roof. The monumental stupidity of slaughtering one of the handful of people in Ambridge who aren't gargoyles, was laced with malice. He had to die because he was old guard conservative despite his hippie ways, because he was a portrait of a certain kind of Englishman, and it had to be in a pointless way, nothing heroic about it, because in Ambridge it is forbidden to say anything good about a gent. All conservative viewpoints are to be put in the mouths of the most dented and discredited characters, such as Shula and Brian Aldridge.

The audience are not happy. They go to Ambridge to hear Nigel, not to bury him. The loss of yet another male character, especially a fundamentally decent one, is another reason to stay away as Ambridge gradually turns in to Tenko. Besides, we are on the brink of months of real-life misery. Fictional grief is surplus to requirements; there's plenty of real grief to go round.

It isn't the first time Whitburn has fouled-up. The 2006 Ruth Archer extra-marital affair was so hopelessly out of character and such an unwelcome development that the audience switched off. It was even lampooned by the late Humphrey Littleton on "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue" as the traditional way of celebrating the 15,000th edition. The writers hastily patched up the episode and put it in the Never Mention This Again box. There are some things the audience is not prepared to hear, even if you managed to write it convincingly.

But then, from the BBC's point of view the killing of Nigel Pargetter it isn't a foul-up; it's what they most enjoy - the symbolic killing of England.

Update: audience reaction