11 Flowers

Wang Xiaoshuai, director of ‘Beijing Bicycle’ also directed this 2011 affecting film.  ’11 Flowers’ is set in 1975 and tells the story of 11 year old Wang Han who lives with his parents and sister in the country.  Originally from the city, the family do their best to survive in the tail end of the Cultural Revolution when thousands of ‘intellectuals’ were expected to better themselves through hard work in rural areas.  Like ‘Beijing Bicycle’, it is the story of people coping in changed circumstances.


Wang Han has three friends.  Together, they spend their time exploring in the forest and by the river.  At school, the day starts with gymnastic exercises in the playground for every pupil.  Wang Han is selected to lead these, a position of honour but one that brings its own difficulties.  The teacher suggests that he should have a new (and smarter) shirt if he is to lead from the front.  This places a burden on his family and she lets him know how hard this will be.  She relents, though, after talking to the teacher and uses a year’s worth of coupons to buy the material.


The shirt is a source of pride for Wang Han but also forms the device around which the central part of the film is based.  When the boys play down by the river, the shirt is stolen and, knowing he cannot return home without it, Wang Han searches for it even though this may put him in danger.


Throughout the film, we see an eleven year old boy trying to make sense of the adult world as he and his friends listen in on conversations, observe adult behaviour and exist at the edge of dramatic events.  Adults who accept but do not agree with the regime’s policies, patriotic displays in the town, tensions between factions at the factory and disputes over family honour are all covered.  Liu Wenqing who plays Wang Han has a doleful face; the perfect mirror for us to view the story of a boy at the end of childhood innocence.

’11 Flowers’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


When Japanese Boys are Girls


This young girl is a boy!  His name is Marius Yo and he is part of a Japanese boy band called ‘Sexy Zone’.  You can see that he is really a boy from the photo below.


My source of knowledge about Japan tells me that the term ‘Sexy Zone’ may have no specific meaning.  Japanese  people like the sound of English words and, sometimes, put together some odd combinations.  ‘Hey! Say! Jump!’, for example, is another boy band with an English name that has little literal meaning.  He also tells me that being ‘cute’ or Kawaii is a big thing in Japan and this could be why Marius Yo is dressed as a girl so often.

The group has five members and it seems that Marius is either the most feminine of them all or, more likely, that he is called upon to fill this role within the group.  Certainly, when they dress up he is the one in the girl role.   You can see him on the left of the picture below with his fellow group members all as male characters.


Below, you can see other photos of his appearance as a girl character or in girl clothes.




None of this means that Marius Yo wants to be a girl or is especially feminine in behaviour or manner.  It seems that dressing as a girl is part of the kawaii factor!


Cultural differences such as these are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Remembering Stephen Lawrence

It is Black History Month in the UK and each year I try to read something about black history of the UK.  Having grown up in 60s and 70s, my history lessons were exclusively about the exploits of white men, and usually rich white men.  Having grown up in London, this is surprising because my part of London was diverse from the time of my birth.  In fact, this diversity was not only normal but a reason to be proud of our borough.

Yet, it was in this same borough that Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993.  The fact that he was killed simply because he was black made it the lowest point in recent history of London.


The only reason his murder wasn’t just another statistic was that his parents would not accept the poor investigation by the police; shortcomings that were due to the preconceived ideas about young black men brought by the police to the crime scene.

The tragic events are detailed in Brian Cathcart’s 1999 book, ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’.  It pieces together the racist murder by a gang of white youths at a bus-stop in south London, and the failure of the police investigation to bring anyone to justice for the crime.   I read this book on publication and was appalled that the case would have been quietly forgotten had it not been for the efforts of Neville and Doreen Lawrence to keep it in the public eye.

Doreen Lawrence wrote her own book, ‘And Still I Rise’ which has even more power due to the fact that this is a mother’s grief and determination we are reading about.  Duwayne Brooks wrote his own story, which has an extra dimension since he was targeted by the police even after the murder.  ‘Steve and Me’ is worth reading for this different angle.  I read his book straight after Doreen Lawrence’s.  In 1999 the Tricycle Theatre put on Richard Norton Taylor’s drama documentary based on the transcripts of the Inquiry into police failings in this case.  I did not get to see it so read the play script instead.  ‘The Colour of Justice’ distils the case into a tragic story of indifference with no satisfactory conclusion.

This weekend, I read Dr Richard Stone’s book, ‘The Hidden Stories of The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry’.  Dr Stone was one of three advisers appointed to support the Inquiry Chairman, William MacPherson.  The convention is that advisers to inquiries maintain confidentiality ever afterwards; the report must speak for itself.  But what are you to do when the climate in policing and race relations means lessons learned from this tragic case may be lost?  Dr Stone provides analysis of the debates behind the scenes and the battle he and others had to get, then Commissioner, Paul Condon to admit to institutional racism.  This one acceptance by the Commissioner could have provide the impetus for change throughout the system.


The book is worth reading.  We need to be reminded of this case and we should never forget Stephen Lawrence.

The National Gallery is a Treasure House

I decided I should spend longer in the National Gallery on my visit to London this weekend.  I make a point of going in whenever I am in the Trafalgar Square area, even though I always spend much longer in the National Portrait Gallery next door.

On most visits, though, I get no further than the main vestibule as here, on the wall over the stairs, is Frederic, Lord Leighton’s painting, ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna’.  This is a work of art I would love to own.  Unfortunately, Queen Victoria beat me to it.  Apparently, she saw it at the Academy in 1855 and bought it.  It is currently owned by the present Queen but on permanent loan to the gallery.  It is quite easy to miss as you enter, as it is above and behind you when you climb the stairs.  If you know it is there, though, you need go no further into the gallery to be impressed.

BlogCimabue's Celebrated Madonna

This is the painting I will make time for, even if I am rushing by and don’t plan to venture into the gallery itself.  However, if there is time, I have two other paintings I head for as these, too, are in my hinterland.  ‘Young Spartans Exercising’ by Degas and ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Delaroche are both paintings to make you stop and reflect.

I am always impressed by the Delaroche painting but remember the effect it had on me as a schoolboy when I saw it for the first time. I should say, ‘when I saw it in real life’ as it was an image I knew well from history books.  My school organised a trip to the Gallery and, as was the custom in the 70s, left us to explore.  I did what I always did: wandered around; stopped occasionally but mostly just wandered.  When I came across ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ I was stunned.  The image is very powerful, especially the expression on her half hidden face, but the size is something else.  I was used to seeing it small (post card sized!).  When you come across the real thing, it takes your breath away.


‘Young Spartans Exercising’ by Degas is intriguing because there is so much debate about what is going on; a debate fuelled by the artist’s reluctance to provide background information himself.  The painting could show a courtship ritual.  It could be a challenge to sporting competition.  The young women on one side with the boys on the other with fully clothed women in between pose many questions.  For me, I was curious about why the young men were completely exposed but the women not.  I was also intrigued by the sense of pride shown by the boys in their pose.  At their age, I would have died to be in that position.  But then, I am British and it was the 70s.  These days, it is of more interest to me for what it once meant.


The two paintings currently hang in the same room in the gallery.

The National Gallery is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Beijing Bicycle

This 2001 film from director Wang Xiaoshuai is a gem.   Guei has arrived in Beijing from the country to work as a messenger.  He is given a bicycle by his employers but he has to pay for it from his wages.  So all is well until it is stolen and, facing the end of his city dream if he cannot find it, he goes off in search of his bike.  Jian has it.  He paid for it so doesn’t see why he should give it up when Guei finds him and claims the bike as his own.  For Guei it is a livelihood in the big city.  For Jian, it is status with his friends and in the eyes of the girl he fancies.


Both boys feel their claim on the bicycle is justified.  Jian was promised a bike by his lower middle class father but the need to provide money for the sister’s school fees means he loses out.  Buying the bike on the streets is his way of avoiding humiliation with his wealthier school friends.  Guei needs the bike for his job and he was close to paying off his debt.  How the two deal with this stand off is the central drama of the film.


Themes such as poverty versus wealth and city versus country are explored along with an exploration of China’s experiment with capitalism.   Guei is the innocent abroad; in one scene he enters a sauna as he thinks he is being directed there to deliver his message.  When he is given a bill, his bewilderment is clear.  Jian is the boy at the edge of a group.  He knows what he wants but knows that his family isn’t as affluent as others.  He also takes second place to his sister and knows it.


It isn’t hard to feel sympathy for both Guei and Jian as both boys are victims of their circumstances.  It was hard to think of a solution that both boys could live with.  Conflict seems inevitable.

‘Beijing Bicycle’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Golden Boy

Some books stay with you long after you have finished them.  Here is one such.  ‘Golden Boy’ by Abigail Tarttelin is worth reading for the exploration of what it means to be a boy.  Here, we don’t have a boy who wishes he were a girl, or a girl trying a new identity.  In this story, Max is the golden boy of the title.  He is the successful student, perfect son and loving brother.  He fits in with his middle class family of high-flying criminal lawyer mother and father with ambitions to get into parliament.

This picture of a family, secure in its own image, hides an important secret, though.  Max is intersex, a fact known to very few outside their immediate circle of family and close friends.

When the story begins, being intersex presents no great problems to Max or those around him.  He has found his own way through childhood.  He clearly presents as a boy and this accords with the sense he has of himself.  His wide circle of friends accept and admire him both for his skill on the sporting field and his respectful treatment of others.  It is only when a close friend, one he has grown up with, violates his trust that the careful world this family has created starts to crumble.  Not only is this friend one of the few who knows Max’s ‘secret’ he is also the son of his parents’ closest friends.  Questions of loyalty as well as identity become significant.


Max comes across as such a gentle and loving boy.  His search for medical help leads him to question some of the choices his parents made for him and he uncovers some of the past disagreements his mum and dad had over him.  If his parents can’t agree with what he should know or who he should be, then how will he get the information he needs?  What seems certain to Max, though, is that, as his male friends mature further, the gap between him and them will become more obvious.  Max’s boyhood may not be entirely physical but it is his own sense of himself.

The story shows how Max comes to terms with the person he is.  It also shows that trying to find the ‘correct’ answer for an intersex child is never without consequences.  His younger brother, whose autism is background to the central narrative, is the person whose acceptance of Max does not rely on gender.

This is an important book because it gives us a glimpse of what it is like to live within the fault lines of gender.

‘Golden Boy’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Roger McGough

Roger McGough is a poet whose work I admire.  I have attended more readings by him than by any other poet.  I have seen him ‘live’ on at least 8 occasions over the years, starting in Oxford in the early 80s.

This poem is a favourite.  I first heard it when he was interviewed on BBC television on the Michael Parkinson Show.  This must have been during the 70s.  What struck me, back then, was the powerful situation he created through his poem.  It was based on a newspaper story of a father having to formally identify the body of his son.  The IRA were active at the time and, although there is no direct reference in the poem, newspaper reports of the 70s were full of incidents like this that wrecked families.

This poem appears in the anthology ‘Gig’.  My copy is signed by Roger McGough and dated May 1980.  I went to hear him give a reading and he included ‘The Identification’.  Most of all, though, I remember the silence on the Michael Parkinson Show when he finished reading it aloud.

The Identification

So you think its Stephen?
Then I’d best make sure
Be on the safe side as it were.
Ah, theres been a mistake. The hair
you see, its black, now Stephens fair …
Whats that? The explosion?
Of course, burnt black. Silly of me.
I should have known. Then lets get on.

The face, is that the face I ask?
that mask of charred wood
blistered scarred could
that have been a child’s face?
The sweater, where intact, looks
in fact all too familiar.
But one must be sure.

The scoutbelt. Yes thats his.
I recognise the studs he hammered in
not a week ago. At the age
when boys get clothes-conscious
now you know. Its almost
certainly Stephen. But one must
be sure. Remove all trace of doubt.
Pull out every splinter of hope.

Pockets. Empty the pockets.
Handkerchief? Could be any schoolboy’s.
Dirty enough. Cigarettes?
Oh this can’t be Stephen.
I dont allow him to smoke you see.
He wouldn’t disobey me. Not his father.
But that’s his penknife. Thats his alright.
And thats his key on the keyring
Gran gave him just the other night.
Then this must be him.

I think I know what happened
… … … about the cigarettes
No doubt he was minding them
for one of the older boys.
Yes thats it.
Thats him.
Thats our Stephen.

Roger McGough


The poems of Roger McGough are in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?