Sunday, 21 June 2015

Once you are Real, you can't be ugly . . .

'The Velveteen Rabbit' or 'How Toys Become Real'

Nothing cheers you up quite like a funky new haircut. Especially when your hair has begun to drop out.

It could be a lot worse, I hasten to add. My wonder drug is much kinder than conventional chemo, so the loss is patchy rather than all over - plenty left for my Guardian Angel, the lovely Linda, to work with. Short layers have given it a bit of body, and made a nice base for my quirky new hat to sit on. So I feel altogether more confident about leaving the house. More than that, too, just the feel and touch of having it sorted was a therapy in itself.

As I've been watching my body collapse into disrepair over the last few weeks, I've found myself remembering one of my all time favourite children's stories - 'The Velveteen Rabbit' by Margery Williams. If you don't know it, it's available free on-line, along with all the beautiful original illustrations:

It's the story of a toy rabbit who arrives at a little boy's home for  Christmas. As he settles into life in the nursery, he asks his new friend, the old skin horse, what it means for a toy to become "real". This is how their conversation goes:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

So today, this is for everyone whose body feels as though it is failing and falling into disrepair, everyone who is becoming bald or loose in the joints or shabby. Once you are real, you can't be ugly. Except to people who don't understand.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Holman Hunt and a Dog called Matisse

Today, I have to begin with a confession. I watch Britain's Got Talent. You might despise me for it, you might turn up your nose, you might call it a guilty pleasure but there it is. I watch it. And while I frequently wince at it, for a reasonable proportion of the minutes it occupies the screen, I thoroughly enjoy it, too.

But you would be right to say it's a guilty pleasure. I'm all too aware that from the minute the opening credits roll, what I'm watching is basically a cleverly constructed con trick, where the contestants who flock for their two minutes of fame are puppets in the hands of the editors and producers whose smoke and mirrors can distort anything and everything into fodder for the ratings war. Non - existent scandals are created; audience reactions are manipulated; tear - jerking back - stories are exploited. I can no longer tolerate it on the X factor. Nor could I find anything to enjoy in watching the Jeremy Kyle Show - where in fact the smoke and mirrors trapping vulnerable and exploitable people is not just a presentational strategy, but the whole point of the experience.

But, up until now, the balance with Britain's Got Talent has been such that it has tipped me into wanting to watch. Because between the smoke and mirrors, between the  uncomfortable moments of delusional people being allowed to expose themselves, come the two minute bursts of the most extraordinary and joyful feats of talent, courage and dedication, many of them from the most unlikely people. Like little gems of reality in a paste and paper crown, these moments have made it worth it.

 A week ago today, the show was won by a woman called Jules and her dog Matisse. She had openly employed other dogs too - we had met them in both the semi and final performances - but the bulk of the act focussed around her prize collie. Hardly surprising, given that not only was he trained brilliantly to do extraordinarily cute things, he was a dog so full of affection, good nature and evident enjoyment of life that the whole nation, it seemed, had fallen in love with him. I certainly had. And while humans' words and actions can be endlessly misrepresented, that is a lot harder to do with a dog.

But how are the mighty fallen! From the feel good of Sunday night's final, the plunge to disgrace was swift and merciless. By Friday, the Hosanna singing crowds were yelling crucify from every rooftop. Facebook was full of it; the newspapers were full of it; even Sandi Toksvig and Graham Norton were regarding the Britain's Got Talent stunt dog scandal as fair game for mockery. The revelation that had caused such outrage - that one of the sequences involved the second dog we had already met earlier in the week, but the illusion that he was, in fact Matisse - didn't even seem to me to be a problem. No CGI, no dog that hadn't been trained by Jules herself, no hiding of the fact that other dogs appeared alongside Matisse in her acts. But - for whatever reason - a decision had been made somewhere that a scandal was to be declared, and suddenly everyone was playing. The pair had been plunged from national treasures to the most hated cheats in Britain.

What's going on behind this story? Who knows. My best guess is that Jules herself has suddenly been made a victim in a very dangerous game. In retribution for the folly of being lured into reality TV land and simply doing exactly what her producers told her, she has become the victim of some pretty unpleasant bullying on a nationwide scale (when satire attacks the powerless, Sandi and Graham, it's not satire, it's bullying. Let's be clear.) Of course, I may be quite wrong about this. Jules herself may be an agent working for the BBC in a cunningly devised plot to bring Cowell's Empire down.  Or she may be an agent working for Cowell to give his Empire more publicity. Or she may be a double agent working for both.  The skulduggery that goes on in the media and entertainment industries is hardly confined to FIFA, after all, and none of us ever know what the vested interests are in how anything we receive through the media is presented to us. But as I say, my best guess is that Jules is not a hardened collaborator in a cunning plot who can take whatever is doled out to her. My best guess is that, like any victim of sudden vicious bullying, her world has collapsed. To blame that on her own stupidity for getting involved in Cowell's media circus would be acute hypocrisy from those like me who sustain that world for their own Saturday night entertainment.

But you know what? It's the dog that really gets to me. Or to be precise, it's the way we as desperate participants in an instantly connected, social media driven, got - to - have - an - opinion - on - and - someone - to - blame - for - everything - world, have corporately turned on and kicked the dog. Even when we don't even really know what the story's about. Because he is indisputably innocent, he is the perfect mirror to show us what we have become - well, what we have always been, to be fair, but which modern technological advances reveal us to be more swiftly and terribly than ever before. A community of bullies. A community which needs a scapegoat to carry its own fear and insecurity. A community where violence is projected on to the defenceless through the smoke and mirrors of comedy and cleverness. A community that has failed to move very far from the sacrifice of innocent sheep and goats in a desperate attempt to rid ourselves of our own sin and sickness.

Debbie, lighten up! I hear you say. It's only a dog on a talent show! But it isn't, actually, the dog on the talent show I'm worried about. It's what he shows us about ourselves.

Britain' Got not just Talent, but a Winter Wind of Austerity closing in ever closer. And everyone knows that means that at some point, the peasants will start revolting again the powerful. Unless they can be found a scapegoat to vent all that fear and insecurity on instead. A  nation that can turn on a dog in less than a week seems to me a nation ready to turn on . . . well, who might we turn on to blame for our current economic crisis? Who lies ready to hand for us, as the Jewish community lay ready to hand for the desperate, starving nation of post World War I Germany? Who will be promoted to us by the powerful who govern us as the real threat to our national security and prosperity? Who thinks a holocaust of the stranger, the refugee and the 'alien' faith community could never happen here? Who's failed to notice that it's already beginning?

Lamb of God, have mercy on us.