Back in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.
It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes. There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before. The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.
In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!
I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role. I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.
‘The Chinese Detective’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The best thing about reading A Level textbooks for history is the knowledge that there is no exam at the end of it. Add to that the fact that there is no course work either! For both of these reasons studying units of the History curriculum for A Level is pure joy. Maybe this is what education used to be like before politicians got involved. Maybe studying for the sake of it is what is needed to produce good learners. I should not like to deny the students seeking validation the experience of exams but, for me, those days are over.
The A Level textbooks continue to provide the right level at which to access high quality information on a topic or period in history. The Access to History series I have used also directs you to particular historians if you want to study specific areas in greater depth.
I started a couple of years ago with a unit on the USA involvement in Asia after the Second World War, particularly in Korea and Vietnam. Since then I have studied a unit on Presidents of the USA in the later half of the Twentieth Century (but I did this before the last Presidential election), a unit on the Indian fight for independence and, most recently, a unit on Germany from defeat in 1945 to reunification.
I studied British and European history for my own A Level back in the 70s, before many of the events in these books had even taken place! This, though, is the way to study history without tears. I recommend it.
I am told that this poem by the wonderful James Fenton is frequently used in wedding ceremonies. I can see why but I am including it here because I like it.
Stay near to me and I’ll stay near to you –
As near as you are dear to me will do,
Near as the rainbow to the rain,
The west wind to the windowpane,
As fire to the hearth, as dawn to dew.
Stay true to me and I’ll stay true to you –
As true as you are new to me will do,
New as the rainbow in the spray,
Utterly new in every way,
New in the way that what you say is true.
Stay near to me, stay true to me. I’ll stay
As near, as true to you as heart could pray.
Heart never hoped that one might be
Half of the things you are to me –
The dawn, the fire, the rainbow and the day.
This 1996 film from Czech film-maker Jan Sverak is a wonderful exploration of how a life can change and find meaning in an unexpected way. The director’s father Zdenek plays the central role of Louka, a dedicated bachelor who earns his living as a cellist, or struggles to by playing at funerals; his previous job with an orchestra was lost when he was considered to be politically unreliable. This is Czechoslovakia in the late 80s and, although the Soviet bloc is disintegrating, the regime is still a totalitarian one.
Louka struggles to make a living and agrees to marry a Russian woman for cash. Things go wrong when she uses her new citizenship status to esacpe to the West, leaving her five-year old son behind. The boy is the Kolya of the title.
The story is one of a growing bond between man and boy, despite the language difficulties and the other problems of an inexperienced bachelor trying to look after a young boy. What becomes clear, though, is the sense that both need each other. For Louka, in particular, the change to his life is positive; he finds purpose in the role of parent.
Towards the end of the film, the events of the late 80s in the Eastern bloc affect both man and boy. The ending plays cleverly on the idea of freedom and loss, for both individuals and groups.
The film is never sentimental but it is affecting. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
It is rare that I think any version of a book is better than the original. Stories which are told as a novel are created in that form for a reason and versions, for screen or stage, are often derivative rather than expansive. So, I was blown away by this theatrical interpretation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s original novel.
The 2003 novel is narrated by a young man called Christopher. He does not tell lies, not as he says because he is good but because he has asperger’s syndrome. His interest is in numbers and space. When he finds his neighbour’s dead dog in the night, he wants to find out who killed it. His investigations lead him to uncover family secrets, not least the fate of his mother who he believed died two years before.
Christopher’s view of the world is one without pretence or metaphor. He may not understand the nuance of social interaction but his straightforward approach to people allows him to find the truth that is obscured for others.
The novel is brought to life by an ensemble that takes on the neighbours, family members and teachers that surround Christopher. Their presence on the stage throughout the action adds to the sense that others understand the world better than Christopher does. The stage is lit by grids of LED lights demarcating acting spaces and adding to the impression of a mind that is differently wired.
In the performance I saw the part of Christopher was played by Sam Newton, affecting as the young man who struggles to navigate a world he does not fully understand. In the end, the play is about difference, growing up and identity. I read the novel when it first appeared. I enjoyed it and I am glad I read it first but this production blew me away. It really was a case of a book coming to life.
In the final pages of Mark Thompson’s book ‘Enough Said’, he makes reference to this poem by Keats. Having been reminded of it, I read it again after many years. It is in my hinterland.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
I heard Mark Thompson, former Director- General of the BBC, speak at a conference a few years ago and was so disappointed by the fact that he, like the two prominent people who preceded him, gave a speech that was so concerned about not upsetting anyone in the audience that he spoke for about half an hour without saying anything of any substance at all!
I was surprised, therefore, at how much I enjoyed his book on rhetoric and the current state of political language in the UK and USA. The background is a gloomy one as far as I am concerned with our country divided by the toxic debate around Europe and Brexit. This book examines, in part, the reasons for the erosion of trust in politics. He also examines the skills and techniques used by politicians to obscure as well as make points. We really do seem to be in an age of poor political debate. Disagreements are often personal. The messenger rather than the message is attacked. Newspapers do not clarify but pedal points of view.
Thompson had a long, distinguished career in BBC journalism and speaks from experience. I could not help reflect, though, that his journalists created as well as suffered from the new world he bemoans. At the very least, they colluded.
Yet here we are, in a media age of infantalised debate and crude online comments attacking anyone we don’t agree with. The book shows that the study of rhetoric would make us all better citizens and, maybe, less susceptible to being taken in by the spin and misinformation of others. This book is a good place to start the fight back against the forces of ignorance.