Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Bridgerton 2

I launched this blog early last year with a post exploring the appeal of the Netflix series Bridgerton (if the details are a little hazy you can refresh your memory here). That post ended with a question: would season two be able to find a central thread as engaging as the romance between Simon and Daphne?

You’ll be pleased to hear that – taking my blogging duties seriously – I have now viewed the entire second season just so I can answer that question for you. And the answer is… yes and no.

Bridgerton 2 delivers more of what made the first season appealing. A glorious fantasy of Regency England, where people of various ethnicities in fabulous costumes dance, drink tea, gossip and flirt in a range of sumptuously decorated settings. A new activity is added to the mix this time: the sport of croquet, serving to showcase the charmingly boisterous Bridgerton siblings. The contrast between the wealthy, well-bred and effortlessly tasteful Bridgertons (predominant colours: white with hints of blue) and the garish yellow and orange frocks of the perennially cash-strapped Featheringtons (brought to you by the letter P) is as striking as ever.

There are plots and side plots galore. The independent-minded Eloise (Bridgerton sibling number 5) is due to be presented to the queen, and arrives at court a bundle of nerves at the beginning of episode one. She is spared the horror of the curtsey, however, when a copy of the latest Lady Whistledown scandal sheet is delivered to the queen mid-ceremony, distracting her from the debutantes. In the course of the season, Eloise’s intellectual and political interests and her curiosity about Whistledown lead her into a perilous friendship with a lowly printer’s apprentice. Will her reputation survive?

As in series one, the boys of the family are free to mix with whoever they want without endangering their social standing. Anthony’s opera singer from season one has vanished, but he satisfies his sexual appetites with a series of brief, transactional encounters, while Benedict (sibling number 2) enters the Royal Academy as an art student and consorts with an attractive life model. Dull Colin (sibling 3) is the only adult male Bridgerton not getting any action. Though still pining for the woman who nearly entrapped him into marriage in season one, he is beginning to appreciate the loyal attachment of Penelope Featherington, the girl next door. But can the two (whose love story forms the focus of the fourth Bridgerton novel) generate enough romantic and sexual tension to power an entire future season? I find it hard to imagine.

Penelope was the subject of a major and in my view highly implausible revelation in the final episode of season one: this sheltered 17-year-old, we are asked to believe, is behind the suave, knowing voice of gossip writer Lady Whistledown. Whistledown’s identity remains unknown to society at large, and the mystery obsesses both Eloise Bridgerton – oblivious to her best friend’s secret pursuits – and Queen Charlotte. The latter, taking liberal pinches of snuff and sporting a series of increasingly elaborate wigs (almost worthy of their own spin-off), launches a determined campaign to unmask the writer.

The queen’s only other narrative function is to choose her “diamond”, the most promising of the season’s debutantes. Here the makers of Bridgerton have somewhat implausibly taken a real expression – “a diamond of the first water”, the queen’s epithet for Daphne in season one – and turned it into a title, and an imaginary annual tradition: in episode one, high society is eagerly awaiting the queen’s choice.

This year’s “diamond” is the beautiful and accomplished Edwina Sharma, the younger of a pair of sisters recently arrived from India. Her debut coincides with Anthony Bridgerton’s decision to do his duty as the head of the family by marrying and producing an heir. The weight of those family duties, incidentally, is shown in a montage where Anthony pores over paperwork at his desk, glances frequently at his watch, and looks increasingly frazzled. The quest for a bride is just another of these burdensome duties, and he approaches it in businesslike fashion, with a checklist of the qualities he requires. Since Edwina ticks all the boxes, he chooses her. There’s an problem, though: her fiery elder sister Kate disapproves of him, and sets out to thwart his plans. The two clash; sparks fly. I think you can see where this is going.

What is surprising is how long it takes to get there. Despite his attraction to Kate and her obviously more suitable temperament (demonstrated in that pivotal game of croquet), Anthony persists in his pursuit of the wrong sister. As in season one, the obstacle to true love has its origins in the hero’s past and the mistaken conclusions he has drawn from it. Simon, leading man in the first season, had vowed never to produce an heir in order to spite his cold, unloving father. Anthony, in contrast, is haunted by the memory of a good father cut down in his prime (by a bee sting, of all things), and of his mother’s intense, debilitating grief. The lesson he has learnt is that love is to be avoided at all costs, since the death of a beloved spouse leads to unbearable pain.

Despite frequent admonitions from his mother and sister (Daphne, now a wife and mother), it takes a whole season for Anthony to realize what we all knew all along – that it is better to have loved and lost than never… well, you know how it goes. The question is: do we like him enough to wait around for this realization? Anthony doesn’t have quite the same sex appeal as season one’s hero, Simon, but he’s undeniably handsome and has a good line in smouldering gazes. His wrongheadedness is infuriating, as is his insensitivity towards both the Sharma sisters, but the revelations about the traumatic loss of his father make us more willing to forgive his faults.

Kate makes an appealingly spirited heroine, feistier and more resolute than Daphne in season one. But is there enough chemistry between the two to keep us watching? They certainly try hard. There are several near kisses, moments where their lips are millimetres apart, their breathing erratic. At one point Anthony’s nostrils actually flare – I have to say that’s something I’d always associated with horses, but there we go, it seems it’s a sign of attraction. Anyway, romance junkie that I am, I did keep watching and waiting. Was it worth the wait? Strangely I found their first actual kiss, despite the vertiginous camera work, slightly less thrilling than all those almost-kisses. Definitely something to be said for unresolved sexual tension.

It's been widely noted (and in some cases lamented) that season two has far fewer sex scenes than season one. I don’t find this a problem, but what I do miss here is the emotional rapport that was established between the romantic leads in the first season. Simon and Daphne talk to each other; Anthony and Kate barely seem to do so. Perhaps it’s inevitable in the “enemies to lovers” storyline. There’s ample evidence of physical attraction, but little sign that they actually like each other. A bit more dialogue wouldn’t have gone amiss here – though there is that all-important croquet match, where one shot is worth a thousand words.

Overall, I’d say Bridgerton 2 more or less pulls it off. Anthony and Kate are both easy on the eye, their parallel struggles to suppress desire and uphold duty win our sympathy, and the tension between them keeps us watching. As a conscientious blogger, I may even feel duty-bound to tune in to season three…

Saturday, 30 April 2022

La figlia oscura/The Lost Daughter


We all know childhood can be traumatic, but what about parenthood? Can living with our children leave lasting psychological scars?

This is one of the questions explored in La figlia oscura, a short novel by Italian author Elena Ferrante. The novel has been translated into English as The Lost Daughter, and adapted into a highly acclaimed film by Maggie Gyllenhaal, starring Olivia Colman. I’d like to talk about both the novel and the film here, with a particular focus on their depiction of motherhood.

La figlia oscura is the story of Leda, a lecturer in English literature at a university in Florence. Long divorced, she is adjusting to life on her own after her two twenty-something daughters have gone to live with their father in Canada. At first she feels liberated, and life becomes easier. She decides to rent an apartment in a seaside town for the summer, taking her work with her. Returning to the same beach every day, she becomes obsessed with a large Neapolitan family, whose noisy vulgarity recalls her own family of origin. The novel describes Leda’s activities and encounters during this holiday, but its focus is on her thoughts and memories, particularly of the period when her daughters were young and she was struggling to launch an academic career while looking after them. Most of the action takes place inside her mind.

How does the film cope with this challenge? First of all, it has to be mentioned that Gyllenhaal’s adaptation has one major weakness, an unfortunate side-effect of the Covid pandemic. The film script had initially transposed the action to the US, with the British-born protagonist working at an unnamed university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and taking a holiday on the nearby coast of Maine, where she meets a family from Queens, New York. So far, so plausible.

Since Covid restrictions made filming in Maine impossible, however, the entire production was shifted to a Greek island – while leaving the characters’ origins unchanged. So we have a British-born, US-based lecturer in Italian literature (specializing in Italian translations of English literature) taking an extended summer holiday on a random Greek island, where she meets a tough-as-nails family from Queens, New York. An altogether less convincing scenario, and one that eliminates the complex relationship between Leda's own origins and her response to the family she meets.

This problem aside, Gyllenhaal’s film is an excellent adaptation, which makes effective use of expressive acting, camerawork, dialogue and flashbacks (where a brilliant Jessie Buckley plays the younger Leda) to convey the protagonist’s inner life.

The initial scenes show her pleasure in her new-found freedom: driving to her destination with the car windows down and the radio blasting; immersing herself in the sea; stretching out on a sun-lounger with a cheeky Cornetto. As she nibbles her ice cream, the idyll is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a large and vocal family group; Leda’s disappointment is palpable. Later, though, she notices a quiet spot amid the noise, the slender, dark-haired young mother Nina (played by Dakota Johnson) and her small daughter. In the novel, Leda observes the apparently perfect harmony between them and concludes that there is something special about the young woman’s way of being a mother: she seems to want nothing other than the child.

The film gets us right inside this mother-child interaction. As Nina and her daughter play aeroplane, the mother’s feet supporting the flying child, the camera takes us so close that we almost see the child from the mother’s perspective, feel her weight and warmth, hear her giggles. Leda, the observer, is visibly moved by these scenes: first smiling, then tearful, then agitated. As she walks to the beach bar and requests a glass of water to calm her nerves, we see the first fragment of memory begin to surface: the camera slides – for a second, if that – over a girl’s face with unruly braids and another girl’s bikini top and wavy hair. Then we’re back to Leda in the present, fighting to regain her composure.

This is followed by a longer scene from the past, a few seconds this time. Two girls, one on her mother’s lap, the other at her shoulder, watch with fascination as she peels an orange, making a single, long “snake” with the peel. Again, this is shot in extreme close up, showing the intimacy, the almost-merging of mother and daughters. Here, though, the mother’s attention is clearly divided. Music plays, slightly muting the childish chatter (“We should stick googly eyes on his face and put him in a cage and decorate the cage”); the mother laughingly agrees, but gazes over her child’s head into the distance. The scene perfectly juxtaposes physical closeness with mental remoteness.

As longer scenes from the past force their way into Leda’s consciousness, this juxtaposition become plainer. There are cuddles and gentle ministrations to the children’s physical needs – a fragment of memory from bath time, for example – but often the girls themselves are slightly out of focus, their talk muffled or drowned out by music. At one point the older Leda remarks sentimentally how soft small children are, “their little bodies”, yet her younger self, overwhelmed by her daughters’ needs and demands and desperate to focus on her work, is often oblivious to this loveliness. The film shows the duality of children – their beauty and unstinting physical affection, but also their power to cling, to make demands, to inspire rage and helplessness.

The difficult physicality of the relationship between mother and child is shown in another scene from Leda’s memory, faithfully reproduced in the film. In the novel Leda recalls how her own mother had resisted her desire for physical play, had not wanted to be combed, adorned with ribbons, dressed and undressed, treated as a doll. Having suffered from this unavailability of her mother’s body, Leda tried to be more available to her own first-born daughter, lying on the floor and letting the child give her medicine, brush her teeth, comb her hair. In the film we see the exhausted young mother dozing off in the middle of these games, only to be painfully woken when the comb, in the child’s inexpert hands, hurts her ear.

In a later scene, the young Leda refuses to give the physical comfort demanded of her: interrupted while trying to work, she puts a plaster on her crying child’s finger but ignores the request to kiss it better. The crying continues unabated, and the camera rests on Leda’s back, her tense posture showing how close she is to breaking point. In another display of deficient parenting, described in detail in the novel and enacted in the film, Leda loses her temper and shoves her daughter, who is defying her. “She was a child of three, but at that moment she seemed bigger and stronger than me.”

Leda’s greatest sin as a mother is withheld from the reader until she blurts it out accidentally, prompted by a desire to shock Nina’s smugly pregnant sister-in-law. When asked what her daughters were like as small children, she claims that she recalls very little. “I went away. I abandoned them when the older one was six and the second one was four.” Subsequently we learn that she left her family to pursue a sudden prospect of academic success and recognition, and an affair with a prestigious scholar. She returned and took back her daughters three years later.

The middle-aged Leda we encounter in the novel and the film is a woman whose mental health is crumbling as a suppressed trauma resurfaces. Some of this springs from guilt at her abandonment of her children, but much of it is a direct result of the experience of living with them. The film focuses on their early childhood, while the novel includes glimpses of what it was like to live with them as teenagers and young women, and touches on Leda’s present long-distance relationship with them.

The novel as a whole offers a fairly pessimistic view of parenthood. It suggests that the effort to do things better than one’s parents is doomed to failure; that the level of selflessness required to be a “good mother” is incompatible with any other kind of self-realization; and that it is almost impossible to make up for past mistakes and build better relationships with one’s adult children. Leda comments that she wrote a letter to her teenage daughters, trying to explain her actions and trigger a discussion. Her daughters, however, did not respond. Leda reflects bitterly: “What foolishness to think one could give an account of oneself to one’s children before they turn fifty at least. To expect to be seen by them as a person, and not as a function.”

The film ends on a slightly more optimistic note. Leda is last seen on a beach, sitting at the water’s edge, peeling an orange in a single long strip of peel, a ritual that had delighted her daughters in their childhood. Her daughters, previously somewhat uninterested in her well-being, call from Canada to check whether she is alive or dead, and she responds joyfully: “I’m alive!” Perhaps there’s hope that they can put their respective traumas – of childhood and parenthood – behind them, and move forward together. I like to think so.


Monday, 31 January 2022

Migrants and refugees

Is the UK a “soft touch” for migrants and refugees? Does the government need to take a tougher stance? The answer, in my view, is a resounding “no”. The UK’s treatment of migrants and refugees is already unwelcoming, and the bill currently passing through Parliament will make it even harsher.

In recent months, the very visible spectacle of people crossing the English Channel in small boats has exacerbated anxieties about migration. Take a look at this newspaper article from November 2021, “Tory MPs tell PM to get a grip on Channel crossings issue”:

Tory MPs have warned Boris Johnson to get a grip on the number of migrants crossing the Channel amid fears the issue is costing the party votes.

Hundreds of people, including children, made the crossing over the weekend despite freezing temperatures, prompting angry backbenchers to demand the Government take tougher action.

Several Conservatives have insisted that the issue of migrants arriving on the south coast is the single biggest topic coming up on the doorstep, sparking fears that the party could lose crucial votes if it is deemed to be “soft”. […]

Polling […] yesterday showed that 55 per cent of the public, and 77 per cent of Tory voters, believe the Government is “too soft” when it comes to migrant crossings.[1]

There’s something both chilling and depressing about this article. It’s the juxtaposition of extreme human misery – people sufficiently desperate to risk their lives and those of their children by crossing a busy shipping channel in freezing temperatures – with extreme indifference to this misery – the “angry backbenchers” who see these people only as a political problem.

There’s nothing new here. For well over a century, pressure of this kind has influenced government policies on asylum and migration. When Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe began to settle in London’s East End and elsewhere from the late nineteenth century, hostile reactions from the public, press and politicians led to the Aliens Act 1905, which aimed to limit the number of poor and Jewish migrants entering the UK. Numerous other pieces of anti-immigrant and often racist and/or anti-Semitic legislation followed. Winston Churchill – the ‘Greatest Briton’ of all time, according to a BBC poll in 2002 – voted against the 1905 act,[2] but later proposed “Keep England white” as a campaign slogan, and argued that restricting immigration from the Caribbean was “the most important subject facing this country”.[3]

Today’s Conservative government is responding to current concerns about immigration with its own new law, the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords.[4] The bill has come under severe criticism from various quarters. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (a committee bringing together members of both Houses of Parliament to scrutinize legislation) has criticized it as incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.[5] Several UN experts have signed a statement declaring that it undermines the UK’s commitment to international law (particularly with regard to assisting the victims of trafficking) and increases the risk of discrimination.[6] And the charity Refugee Action has called it the “Anti-Refugee Bill”, and “the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen”.[7]

So what exactly is wrong with this proposed law? Firstly, it makes it an offence (punishable by up to four years’ imprisonment) for anyone who requires a visa to knowingly enter the UK without one. Yet people fleeing from persecution or war may not have the leisure to apply for a visa before leaving. There may not even be a British embassy to apply to – there is none in either Afghanistan or Syria, for example.  More importantly, though, the chances of obtaining leave to enter the UK are slim. There’s no such thing as a visa for the purpose of claiming asylum, so for most people who don’t hold a first-world passport and don’t have a job or course of study to go to, a visitor visa is the only option. But the rules for visitor visas are geared to exclude anyone who might conceivably not want to return home when the visa expires. Applicants have to supply a substantial body of documentation proving their ties to their home country, financial resources and employment. In the period from 2016-2020, well over half of all visitor visa applications from citizens of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria were refused.[8]

Secondly, the bill states that anyone with a “connection to a safe third state” is ineligible to apply for asylum; applications from such people will be deemed “inadmissible”, with no right of appeal. Such a connection is considered to exist if someone has travelled through a country where they could have claimed asylum. This means that anyone who comes to the UK via Europe will have their application for asylum rejected automatically. And since no one is allowed to board a flight for the UK without the documents required to enter the country – airlines face severe fines for any such passengers – this effectively makes all routes to the UK either inadmissible or illegal. The only exception is official resettlement programmes, but these are extremely limited in scope.

In themselves, these new rules will probably not stop people coming to the UK. But the bill has a provision for that. It explicitly distinguishes between two classes of refugees. Group 1 are those who have “come to the United Kingdom directly from a country or territory where their life or freedom was threatened” (essentially impossible, as outlined above), and who, if they have entered unlawfully, “can show good cause for their unlawful entry or presence”. All other refugees are in Group 2. The bill authorizes the Home Secretary or any immigration officer to treat these two groups differently in terms of how long they are allowed to stay, whether they can have any recourse to public funds, and whether their family members will be allowed to enter or remain in the country.

The Refugee Council is particularly critical of this part of the bill, since removing refugees’ rights to family reunion eliminates one of the few safe routes to the UK for women and children who have been stranded in war zones or refugee camps.[9] It is worth noting that while the majority of refugees who arrive by boat are men, most of the adults who arrive via family reunion are women.[10]

Another key element of the bill is tucked away at the end in a section on “maritime enforcement”. This is the infamous “pushback” policy, giving immigration officers the power to turn back boats containing migrants, using force if necessary. The bill also stipulates that immigration officers will not be liable in any criminal or civil proceedings for any actions they carry out in this context, provided they acted “in good faith”. Parliament’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights has severely criticized this section of the bill because it risks endangering the lives of those in small and unseaworthy vessels, thus failing to protect an essential human right – the right to life.[11] It also violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which enshrines the obligation to rescue anyone in danger at sea.

Another sinister aspect of the Nationality and Borders Bill is that it eliminates the existing rule that asylum seekers may not be removed from Britain while their case is being examined. Instead it states that an asylum seeker may be removed to a safe third country. This may sound innocuous, but it paves the way for the possible future establishment of offshore asylum processing or detention centres like those used by Australia. A recent newspaper article reported that ministers were “ready to provide hundreds of millions of pounds to any country willing to host a processing centre”.[12] Countries approached so far include Albania, Rwanda and Ghana. It is easy to see why the Home Office likes the idea of offshoring asylum procedures. For one thing, it would prevent refugees from gaining a foothold in British society and building up the years of residence that might eventually earn them the right to stay. For another, it would remove the treatment of asylum seekers from the scrutiny and interference of well-meaning British citizens and charities.

All in all, then, this is a bill that is fundamentally hostile towards migrants and refugees. It may not make much difference to the numbers arriving on Britain’s shores, but it will make the lives of those that do arrive, and of the wives and children they may have left behind, much more difficult.

In their fear of being thought “soft”, British governments have not only taken a harsh stance towards migrants on British soil, they have also pressured France to take a harder line on people gathering in Calais while waiting for a chance to cross the Channel. In Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent, [13] Matthew Carr describes his first-hand observations of the cruel and systematic harassment of migrants by the French authorities: arresting them as they queue for food, emptying their water supplies, confiscating their blankets and sleeping bags, destroying their tents, evicting them from whatever shelter they have managed to find. Carr speaks to the deputy mayor of Calais, who assures him this approach is being carried out in consultation with the UK Border Agency.[14]

In an effort to win votes by taking a visibly tough stance on migration and asylum, successive British governments have built up an environment in which migrants in general, and especially those seeking asylum, are treated with deep suspicion. The underlying assumption is that most of those seeking to enter the UK are not genuine refugees, fleeing for their lives, but “economic migrants”, looking to improve their living standards.

Is it actually possible to make a clear distinction between refugees and migrants? Some argue that it is: “Migrants are lured by hope; refugees are fleeing fear.”[15] I’m not sure that the distinction is quite so clear. Natural disasters, weak or corrupt governments, political and economic instability, crime, political or religious repression, persistent discrimination, the fear of violence, the actual experience of violence: all of these are things that might make people leave their country and seek a safer, less precarious existence elsewhere. They may not qualify for the narrow definition of “refugee” set out in the Geneva Convention – someone who has fled their country due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”– but that does not make their need less pressing.

How do we decide whose reasons for migrating are acceptable, and whose are not? Who should be allowed the chance of a new life in the UK? This is an exceptionally difficult question, and I don’t have an answer. But simply keeping everyone out and allowing no one to seek refuge can’t be the solution. On each one of those little boats bobbing across the Channel there will be people who have endured unimaginable hardships, both in their own country and on their journey to northern France. They’ve made the hard decision to leave behind their home, their language and culture, families and friends; they’ve suffered hunger and thirst, heat and cold, terror and hopelessness; they’ve been at the mercy of people smugglers and other criminals, and they’ve probably been mistreated by the police and border forces of various countries.

I can see that simply opening the UK’s borders and welcoming everyone who wants to come here isn’t realistic, yet surely there must be a middle way between this and the hostile, punitive attitude that is currently in place and will be further entrenched by the new bill? It seems to me that what is needed is not a tougher stance, but a kinder one. More compassion, more imagination, and more empathy.

A bit of reading might help. Literature has to be one of the best ways to see things from another point of view. Let’s get our kids reading Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy or Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard; let’s get our MPs reading – for example – The Beekeeper of Aleppo (Christy Lefteri) or American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins). Maybe then those angry backbenchers could return to their constituents’ doorsteps with a different message. Maybe they could start to talk to voters about why they fear migrants, and try to allay those fears rather than falling over themselves to confirm them.

I’m not holding my breath, but it’s something to work towards.

Photo: Middle East Monitor

[1] The i newspaper, 21 November 2021.

[2] At the time he praised “the old tolerant and generous practice of free entry and asylum to which this country has so long adhered and from which it has so greatly gained”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliens_Act_1905

[3] Quoted from Maya Goodfellow, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats (London: Verso, 2019), p. 50.

[5] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/93/human-rights-joint-committee/news/159292/new-powers-to-pushback-and-criminalise-channel-crossings-breach-uks-human-rights-obligations-jchr-finds/

[8] https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/39579/pdf/

[10] https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/39579/pdf/

[12] The i newspaper, 18 January 2022.

[13] London: Hurst & Co., 2012.

[14] Carr, Fortress Europe, p. 129.

[15] Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (London: Allen Lane, 2017), p. 30.

Friday, 24 December 2021

Cycling in winter

The shortest day of the year was upon us, cold and gloomy. I wanted exercise, but could I bring myself to get changed and get my bike out? I hesitated, but the prospect of a workout in my living room had little appeal, and the desire to be outdoors prevailed.

A few years ago I’d decided winter cycling wasn’t for me. The days were too short, the weather too cold, the sun too low – shining in my eyes and, worse, dazzling the drivers, increasing the chances of a bike-car collision. For a year or two my bike lived in the shed from December to February. But in the last couple of years I’ve realized it can be worth getting out cycling even in the depths of winter.

I’m not getting carried away here. I’m not advocating cycling through snow and ice. I might be fooled by a dodgy weather forecast and get caught in a shower, but you won’t see me setting out in the rain. I’m not going to follow my partner’s example and ride 200 km on one of the shortest days of the year in chilly fog and drizzle, plunged into darkness for the last 60 km or so. No, I’m talking civilized, fair-weather cycling, getting out for an hour or so in the middle of the day (a perk of self-employment) for a blast of fresh air and physical exertion.

On the shortest day of the year I follow my shortest route, a circuit northwest of Chelmsford. At first the chilly winter air cuts through my leggings, numbs my gloved fingers and makes my eyes water, but I soon warm up. Within about ten minutes of leaving my back garden, I’m out of suburbia and in the countryside, in Hollow Lane. On the left, gateposts mark the entrance to a long driveway leading to a  large house, plain and dignified, with splendid oversized chimneys. Shortly after, on the right, comes a house of a completely different character: Scravels, with its colourful façade of cream walls, red roof and finials, green trim, and a decorative motif of leaves below the gables.

When I first discovered this route a few years ago, Hollow Lane was entirely rural, but its western end has now been swallowed by a new housing estate, and the road surface is thick with the mud of construction traffic. I’m soon out again, though, heading north on the oddly named Woodhall Hill (there is no hill to speak of).

At some point, a sign announces the beginning of Chignal Smealy, but it’s hard to see where the village starts and stops: there’s the Pig & Whistle, a pub transformed into an upmarket restaurant, a few houses, and a neatly thatched cottage at the corner of Breeds Road. Then fields and hedgerows again, as the road narrows and curves westward, then another cluster of houses around the pretty red-brick-and-ivy church of St Nicholas. Next door is Church House, a picture-postcard half-timbered building with a distinctly discouraging sign announcing “No enquiries”. Whatever I might wish to know, the inhabitants of Church House are clearly not interested in telling me.

At Church House the road makes a sharp turn south, and soon after that I’m heading homeward along Mashbury Road. This takes me through the equally sprawling Chignal St James: a cluster of houses, a brick schoolhouse converted into a dwelling, a smart modern village hall – and then another substantial stretch of countryside before the village resumes, with a few rows of cottages, a red phone box, and a small flint church (St James, presumably), converted into a house.

Passing the ex-church and the cricket green, I have to pedal harder to get up a little hill, then I sail past more houses, one of them previously the village pub, the Three Elms. Its days as a pub are not in the distant past: I sat here in the garden with a beer a few summers ago, and sang carols here with my choir one Christmas (anyone remember which year?). Another tiny hill, more barns converted into luxury housing, and before I know it I’m back on the outskirts of Chelmsford.

Apart from the well-spaced charms of the Chignals, the real appeal of this ride is the countryside itself. Its beauty is a lot less obvious at this time of year: no exuberant blossom, lush greens or gorgeous displays of autumn leaves. But adjust your expectations, and the beauty is there. Trees that might melt into a mass of green in summer reveal their individual shape and structure in winter, bare against a pale sky. Oak with its sturdy, sharply bent branches ending in a delicate tracery of twigs; ash with its thick, upward-curving twigs and fat black buds; blackthorn and dog rose revealing their full spiky nature.

The landscape isn’t completely devoid of colour, either. The sky isn’t a monotonous grey, but mottled, multi-shaded, a watercolour sky. There’s light green grass, a darker green field of winter cabbages, and the still darker green of ivy. There’s the pale, pale yellow-grey-brown of dead grasses. The twigs in the hedgerows are not just brown or grey, but show, from a distance, hints of colour: some are a dark purple-grey, others a faint orange-red. And close up there are small splashes of contrasting colour: a few dark red haws, the feathery white seed heads of traveller’s joy (aka old man’s beard), a scattering of small, bright yellow leaves, mostly blackthorn and dog rose. Brambles, not usually my favourite plant, redeem themselves at this grey time of year with a riotous mix of green, yellow, red and brown leaves.

Most of these things, of course, could also be enjoyed on a walk, but cycling gets me out of town quicker – the alternative would be a long trek through the suburbs or a car trip, braving Chelmsford’s traffic and the hassle of parking. Walking warms me slightly, but cycling really gets my heart pumping. Country walks in winter can be lovely, especially in good company, yet there are times when trudging alone along muddy footpaths fails to thrill me. On my bike I can stick to sealed roads and whizz past any less appealing bits of scenery.

I could potentially get some of this from running – the pumping heart, the faster-passing landscape, the distracting effect of physical exertion. For me, though, running is all effort and no fun, whereas cycling is a delightful mixture of both. Running is supposedly good for my bone density, but it’s a strain on my hamstrings, shins and feet. Cycling gives more movement for less work, and doesn’t exacerbate my middle-aged aches and pains. Running, I’m sluggish and heavy; cycling, I’m as light as air. Running makes me feel old, cycling keeps me young.

Anyone fancy a ride?


Sunday, 31 October 2021

Illegal immigration

Do you remember that news item two years ago about a lorry found in an industrial area in south Essex, containing the dead bodies of thirty-nine people? For many of us, the passage of time has dulled the shock, but a new BBC Two documentary has detailed the events of October 2019 and the subsequent police investigation. Despite its rather sensationalist title and occasionally intrusive background music (haunting strings, of course), Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers is a well-made, sensitive account of the events, and compelling viewing.

It’s fascinating to see elements familiar from fictional crime drama appearing in real life: the smashed, charred mobile phone fished out of a drain and the broken SIM card found some distance away, yielding crucial information on who the driver had contacted between discovering the bodies and calling the ambulance; the painstaking analysis of CCTV to trace the movements of the lorry and the trailer; the extraordinary luck of finding an eyewitness in the French countryside.

Above all, though, this is heartbreaking. The film-makers travelled to Vietnam to speak to the families of the victims: a father, a mother, a young widow left to raise her children alone. All those who died in that lorry were fairly young – the youngest two were fifteen ­– and they weren’t refugees fleeing war or persecution, just young people setting out to seek their fortune, to escape relentless rural poverty, and to try to make enough money to improve their own lives and those of their families.

To enable them to take that step, the families had borrowed the huge sums demanded for the journey; one family had paid $22,000, another person paid £13,000 just for the passage from France to the UK. Sacrifices had been made. One father describes how he borrowed money from the banks and from relatives, some of whom had sold their cows and buffaloes to lend the money. Interviews with the family members are interspersed with footage of their everyday lives and their agricultural work, hinting at the hardship those young people were hoping to escape.

One mother talks about how her daughter had resisted pressure to marry young, and had even concocted the story of a fortune teller informing her “she would only be happy if she got married after she turned 30”. Like many of the others, this young woman had hoped to work overseas for a few years and then come home. Her mother had known she was waiting to get from France to the UK, but hadn’t known the details – only that she was travelling “VIP class”.

For $22,000 one would certainly expect VIP treatment, but the reality was long hours sealed in an overcrowded lorry trailer, where the temperatures gradually rose from a chilly 12 degrees to over 38 degrees (all the victims were found stripped to their underwear). At the same time, with more than twice as many people in the trailer than on previous trips, the oxygen level was dropping. In the end, everyone in that lorry died of suffocation shortly before reaching the English coast. Their final phone messages to their families make devastating reading. The mother of the free-spirited young woman mentioned above confesses that she has not yet been able to bring herself to read the last messages her daughter sent.

Thanks to the police investigation, the criminals most directly involved in the deaths were eventually convicted (of thirty-nine counts of manslaughter) and sentenced to long prison terms. The policeman who had led the investigation made a brief statement outside the court, beginning with the words: “Every man, woman and child that died in that trailer was following the false promise of a better life abroad.”

I found myself wondering about this false promise, this hope of a better life, as I watched the programme. How many of those who make the same journey, but are still breathing when the doors are flung open, actually do succeed in the UK? How many earn enough money not just to support themselves, but to repay the horrendous loans taken out for their passage, and to support their wives, children and parents back home? Given that they live in the UK illegally, what leverage do they have to demand even the minimum wage from any future employer? I suspect that for many, the long and difficult journey to the UK does not lead to prosperity, but to poverty and exploitation.

My fleeting research into the topic suggests that this is probably true. Many illegal immigrants from Vietnam to the UK are smuggled rather than trafficked; that is, they consent to being brought here and their relationship with the smugglers ends on their arrival. However, this report from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner suggests that the difference between trafficking and smuggling is not always clear-cut: many of those who pay smugglers to transport them are exploited en route, or end up in conditions of complete dependence and even captivity, working long hours and in unhealthy conditions in nail salons and cannabis-growing operations. A large proportion of women and girls illegally transported from Vietnam become victims of sexual exploitation. For a good overview of these issues, have a look at this article in the New York Times.

Is there any way we can stop unscrupulous people smugglers from exploiting the hopes of the poor, and extracting huge sums that may condemn their families to worse hardship than before? Is stricter border control the answer? Checking the contents of every single lorry before it boards the ferry? This particular group would have been intercepted if that had happened. But such a level of control is probably not feasible, and even if it were, smugglers might resort to hiding smaller numbers of people, packed into tiny spaces among other, legal imports, or sending them across the Channel in small boats. Either possibility would certainly result in more deaths.

So perhaps tighter controls are not the answer. What about legal migration? What about giving young people from Vietnam (and elsewhere) a chance to come and work in the UK for a couple of years? One suggestion I have seen (though I’ve unfortunately lost track of the source) is to sell visas at a price that compares favourably to the sums paid to smugglers for illegal entry, then pay some or all of the price back to the migrants when they return to their home country. Worth considering, perhaps?

At present the UK does not seem to be contemplating any such scheme. Instead it has intensified efforts to uncover and stop people-smuggling operations, while warning people not to attempt the journey with a hard-hittingadvertising campaign in Vietnam. In some ways this seems a reasonable approach: the more awareness there is of trafficking mechanisms, and of the possible negative outcomes of migration, the less likely it is (one would hope) that people will be sucked into the worst kinds of exploitation. It is unclear how much impact such campaigns can have, however.

Given the irreducible complexity of migration issues, it’s hardly surprising that I can’t produce a conclusion here, let alone a solution. I do recommend Hunting the Essex Lorry Killers, however. At the very least, it reminds us that migrants – legal or illegal – are not just an anonymous mass, but individuals who are ultimately not all that different to us, with hopes and dreams, parents who worry about them, and collections of silly selfies on their phones. Humans, in other words. Perhaps, if enough of us watched it, it might even inspire a useful public debate, informed by compassion rather than hostility and fear.

                                                                                                                     (Photos from bbc.co.uk)

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Women and sport

Photo: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s not necessary for women to play cricket.”

Up to a point, I have to say I agree with this statement. It’s not necessary for women to play cricket. It’s not necessary for men to play cricket. It’s not necessary for children to play cricket.

And yet, inexplicable though it may seem, there are many women, men and children in various parts of the world who want to play cricket. They enjoy playing cricket. They get a kick out of it. And it does no harm at all to anyone else. Well, perhaps just occasionally a ball slams into an innocent spectator or passer-by (a potentially fatal accident, given the rather hard nature of cricket balls), but fortunately this isn’t an everyday occurrence.

So although I might question the necessity of cricket, and would protest quite vigorously if anyone tried to make me watch a game, it would never occur to me to ban it. Nor would I ban model aeroplane building, cross-stitch, Monopoly or darts. None of these activities serves any useful purpose, but they give people pleasure and do no harm. Each to his own.

This is not an attitude shared by the Taliban, who have recently decreed that women in Afghanistan will no longer be permitted to play cricket, or indeed participate in any other sport. In an interview with the Australian broadcaster SBS, the deputy head of the Taliban's cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, offered the spurious explanation that women’s faces and bodies might be exposed while engaging in sport – not just to the people present but to the media. The crux of the matter, however, is that “sport is not seen as something that is important for women”.

This is a statement I strongly disagree with. Most of my female friends and relatives engage in some form of sport, or have done so in the past. My mother was a keen skier and tramper (hillwalker or hiker, for those of you who don’t speak New Zild) as a young woman, and has continued to enjoy walking all her life. My aunt was a world champion triathlete in her seventies, and is still a hardy cyclist and swimmer in her eighties. My cousin, always sporty, fought back after cancer and major surgery and now cycles, runs, and swims impressive distances. My partner plays hockey and takes part in increasingly adventurous cycling events. One of my sisters-in-law competes in triathlons, another played football for several years and now runs across London to get to work. My mother-in-law tracks her step count and cycles around the countryside on her e-bike.

Sport means different things to different women. It’s important for physical health: a way to keep fit, prevent weight gain, and stave off the decline brought by menopause and ageing. It’s important for mental health: an opportunity to spend time outdoors in the natural world, to set goals and achieve them, or perhaps just to let off steam. It’s hugely important as a social activity, connecting us with others and fostering a sense of community. For a small minority – the most talented, the most dedicated – it’s a source of public recognition and in some cases financial security.

Take a look at this photo series of women in Afghanistan engaging in various sporting pursuits. The one that affects me most is the last one, showing a woman on a bicycle; it gets to me because I can’t imagine being forbidden from riding my bike. Cycling is my vitamin pill and antidepressant rolled into one: it gets me outdoors, feeling the sun and the wind on my skin, seeing the changing seasons in the fields and hedgerows and woods. It gets my muscles working and my heart pumping. Cycling makes me feel like a kid, not a middle-aged woman.

The other thing that saddens me when contemplating these photos is that all these women are doing their best to cover up as much skin as they can. It’s impossible to tell whether this stems from personal piety or from a fear of punishment, but in either case, it’s not enough to satisfy the Taliban. Imagine how much you would have to love your sport to jump through those hoops. Imagine compromising your comfort, your enjoyment and your performance with all those hot, constricting extra layers, only to be told “Sorry, no sport for you – it’s just not necessary”.  

I know that this is far from the worst thing the Taliban have done or are likely to do. They’ve also been quoted in the last few days as saying that women can’t be government ministers, because their job is to have children. Keeping women out of government, preventing them from working or even leaving their home unaccompanied, and excluding girls from education: all these things are more significant in the big scheme of things. And women are certainly not the Taliban’s only victims; their persecution of religious minorities and their brutal suppression of dissidents is well known.

But there’s something particularly chilling in this prohibition and its almost offhand justification. It highlights the breathtaking arrogance of a regime which seeks to suppress – or indeed deny – the diversity of human personalities, desires and interests, and to impose the same narrow and rigid patterns on every single life.  Or rather, to impose one pattern with a certain amount of variation on every male life (since men are permitted a range of different jobs and some freedom of movement) and another far more restrictive one on every female life.

I don’t have a conclusion or a solution – invading and occupying Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have helped much. All I can say is that I’m extremely grateful to live in a place and time when women have equal rights to education, self-determination and mobility. Where women can decide for themselves what occupation to pursue, who to sleep with and/or live with, and whether or not to have children. And where women can swim, run, climb mountains, ride bicycles and even – if they really feel so inclined – play cricket.






Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Six things I like about Chelmsford

It’s exactly six years since I arrived in Chelmsford, on a bank holiday weekend at the end of August 2015. We’d left New Zealand in a nightmarish flurry of last-minute packing in mid-July, and spent a few fairly restful weeks with family in Germany. Then Daniela had flown ahead to the UK with the boys, while I’d stayed on with the girls to visit friends in Berlin. Now, however, the day of reckoning had come. As the taxi from Southend airport carried us and our mountain of suitcases towards our new home, I wondered what awaited us. I’d never set foot in Chelmsford before, in fact a few weeks earlier I would have had trouble locating it on a map, and yet here I was moving in – kids, furniture and all – for at least a year, probably longer. What would it be like?

Well, Chelmsford hasn’t swept me off my feet, but it’s grown on me. It’s a city with many good qualities, some instantly apparent, others less so. Here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order.

1. The rivers

My first walk into town, the day after arrival, took me over the footbridge by the Tesco carpark. Looking down, I saw a slow-flowing river, its clear water revealing a complex landscape of bright green waterweed and numerous small fish. It was a brief glimpse, but rather magical. This river turned out to be the Chelmer, which is joined just south-east of the city centre by the somewhat smaller Can. Both are confined to austere concrete channels as they pass through the urban centre, but further upstream they meander through a nature reserve (the Chelmer) and parkland (the Can), their banks lush with plant life. Some of the most attractive spots have been created by human intervention: a lovely pool below a lock on the Can, just outside Admiral’s Park, and another at the foot of a weir across the Chelmer next to the university. I haven’t been tempted to take a dip personally, but on rare occasions I’ve seen teenagers venturing in. After sustained rain, on the other hand, both rivers offer the thrill of rather dramatic floods, transforming the familiar landscape and making footpaths impassable.

Here and below: the Chelmer in various seasons

2. The parks

One of my walks takes me along busy roads (Parkway and Rainsford Road) to the corner of Admiral’s Park. As soon as I’m in the park, the noise of the traffic is forgotten; I’m on a lovely avenue of copper beeches cutting diagonally across a large green field and – a rare thing in this fairly low-lying city – the land slopes away slightly, giving a broad view of the park and a glimpse of the countryside beyond it. The path takes me past a popular children’s playground and a cricket green to a bridge over the Can. At this point the river is shallow, clear, and attractively overhung with elms and horse chestnuts. If I turn left after the bridge I can walk through parks, along a wide path lined with weeping willows, sycamores, ashes, plane trees and limes, all the way into the town centre. After passing under the railway viaduct, I reach the lake and gardens of Central Park. Much thought and care (and money and manpower) has been put into keeping these both beautiful and interesting. Age groups less interested in flowers have also been catered for: there’s a big new children’s playground, outdoor table tennis tables, tennis and basketball courts, and a skatepark. It’s all well maintained, tidy and clean – a real asset for the people of Chelmsford.

Admiral's Park

Admiral's Park

Central Park

3. The historical structures

Chelmsford doesn’t exactly abound with wonderful old buildings – preserving the architectural heritage evidently hasn’t been a priority of the town’s planners over the years. The oldest, according to Wikipedia, is the cathedral, which incorporates remnants of the parish church rebuilt in the fifteenth century. This might not be a sight you would leave your home town to visit, but it has several attractive features (check out the ceiling of the nave, for example), and looks wonderfully Gothic on a foggy winter’s night.

Another striking building is the Shire Hall, at the top of the High Street. Opened in 1791, it originally housed law courts, a corn exchange, and assembly rooms. All these functions have gradually fallen away and it now stands empty, awaiting a brilliant plan for its resurrection. Its neoclassical façade is rather splendid in the late-afternoon sunshine, and I like to imagine horse-drawn carriages pulling up in front of it and spilling out their cargo of provincial beauties for the county ball.

My favourite Chelmsford landmarks, however, are the railway viaducts. Constructed in the early 1840s, they span Central Park and the Can, then the Chelmer further east. I’m hardly a railway enthusiastic, but I have to confess to a tiny moment of joy every time I pass under them and gaze up at their arches. Not just an impressive feat of engineering (this could also be said of modern motorway bridges), but aesthetically pleasing too.

4. The cycling

Chelmsford’s traffic can be truly diabolical, but the good news is that if you’re willing to get on your bike you can avoid the traffic jams: the city has an excellent network of signposted routes and dedicated cycle lanes.

Better still, if you head out of town in the right direction, you can access miles of quiet lanes through very pleasant countryside. To the northwest are the lovely villages of Good Easter and High Easter, Pleshey and Great Waltham; to the southwest the shady, deer-filled woods of Writtle Forest and the extravagant mansions of Fryerning. Or you can follow the national cycle route 1 eastward to Maldon for a breath of sea air (or at least estuary air). This route includes an off-road stretch with sand, gravel, puddles and winter mud, but if you can cope with that and don’t mind a bit of an ascent (it goes over the only hill for miles around), you’ll be rewarded with a delightful mix of countryside and woodland.

The Chelmer at Sandford Mill

National Cycle Route 1

The Chelmer at Great Waltham

5. The culture

Chelmsford has a well-stocked central library and several welcoming local libraries – despite the threats of Essex County Council to close many of the latter. Its theatres (in normal times) provide a varied programme, including free lunchtime concerts by local artists. And the city’s clubs and societies cater to all sort of cultural interests. When I looked for a choir (a first for me) a few months after arriving, I soon realized that there were several, including the very friendly and undemanding one that I joined. A year or two later a choir member invited me to join her book club (another first). And around the same time I decided to do something about my rusty French, and signed up to the French Circle. I haven’t yet felt moved to join the German Circle, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

6. Our house and garden

When we bought this house in 2016 it was a shabby ex-rental with a poky kitchen, the back door leading to a disused outside toilet and a bare garden edged by a sagging chicken-wire fence. Within months our builders had created a brilliant extension, giving us a bright, airy kitchen-diner, a second (indoor!) loo, and a long, skinny annex for me to work in. And once the builders had departed and the fence had been replaced we set to work on the garden, building a deck, laying out a lawn and flower beds, sowing and planting. Within four years it has been transformed from a wasteland to an inviting, relaxing green space, full of flowers and alive with insects in spring and summer. It’s more than we could ever afford in London, and it’s probably my favourite thing in Chelmsford.

So there you go, a very personal top six features of the city I live in. Other people’s lists might well give higher rankings to shops, restaurants and bars, all of which Chelmsford has in abundance, or to the city’s sports clubs or its recently rebuilt leisure centre. All these have served me and my family well – but for this post I wanted to focus on a few things that have made my life here more pleasant.

It may not be forever, but for now Chelmsford and I are getting on fine. 

Bridgerton 2

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